When smoke appears on the horizon, Maria Salinas wants to run. She knows California’s wildfires mean working in the fields as ash rains down and asthma closes off her airways.
“When you spit, the saliva is black,” Salinas, a 41-year-old Indigenous farmworker and activist, told me outside the tin house where she lives in Sonoma County with her husband and four children. Salinas has no choice but to stay and harvest crops in the toxic air. She brings her inhaler to work, hoping it will prevent her from asphyxiating.
“I didn’t even know what asthma was in Mexico,” she told me. She was diagnosed with asthma in 2006, three years after arriving in the U.S. to harvest grapes and other crops. She thinks pesticides made her sick. Now, wildfires aggravate her respiratory issues.
Salinas is one of half a million undocumented farmworkers bearing the brunt of California’s climate crisis — risking their lives and health to harvest in the smoke and sometimes facing financial ruin. While growers have crop insurance and can apply for federal disaster assistance, undocumented farmworkers — who make up three-quarters of all farmworkers — typically get nothing when fires disrupt their work or destroy their property. They’re also ineligible for unemployment benefits and health insurance.
Many are willing to work in life-threatening conditions because they’re desperate to feed their families. Counties across the state even provide access passes for workers to enter evacuated areas and harvest crops or feed livestock after everyone has left.
“They are so on the margins to begin with, that they can’t in good conscience make the safe decision,” said Healdsburg City Councilmember Ariel Kelley.
Adan Meza, a 70-year-old farmworker from Jalisco, Mexico, who lives in Sonoma County, told me that when he did try to make the safe decision by refusing to work during the 2019 Kincade fire, his employer retaliated by withholding work for a time. “If you’re working and killing yourself, they’re happy,” he said.
The recent climate disasters and COVID-19 pandemic have led to what Ezequiel Guzman, president of Latinos Unidos del Condado de Sonoma, calls “cumulative economic trauma” for the undocumented farmworkers who are the backbone of this state’s $49-billion agriculture industry.
“They’re trapped in a cycle of poverty,” said Assemblyman Robert Rivas (D-Hollister), the author of a new law improving farmworker access to protective equipment during fires. “They suffer from higher rates of chronic illness, their housing is horrible, and they work harder and die younger than any other class of people.”
Latinos overall are at higher risk from wildfires as they move into urban outskirts and rural areas where land is more affordable. Although they make up 18% of the U.S. population, they’re 37% of people who live in areas with the highest wildfire risk, according to risQ, an analytics company. But the undocumented and Indigenous are the most vulnerable.
Margarita Garcia, a 39-year-old Indigenous Mexican farmworker, lost her apartment in the 2017 Tubbs fire, as well as her family’s belongings. They were traumatized and temporarily homeless, but they had to keep toiling in the fields. “It doesn’t matter if we are tired,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if we haven’t slept.”
The advocacy group North Bay Jobs with Justice surveyed 100 farmworkers asking what they need in the wildfires. Among their main requests was disaster insurance — support for lost wages and property as a result of wildfires. “We need a system in place that makes sure that when agricultural workers can’t work, they are able to survive,” said Executive Director Max Bell Alper.
Farmworkers also want premium hazard pay. Breathing small particles from wildfires can cause irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma and premature death. Farmworkers are 35 times more likely to die of heat-related illnesses than other workers. They believe they should be compensated for jeopardizing their health.
Additionally, they want safety and evacuation training in their primary languages — including Indigenous languages such as Salinas’ native Chatino or Garcia’s Mixtec. More than 100,000 of the state’s farmworkers are Indigenous, and most don't speak Spanish.
Even when the workers receive evacuation orders, many are too desperate to leave. In September 2020, when the Glass fire arrived in Sonoma County, a 49-year-old undocumented Mexican man named Roberto, who asked me to use only his first name, stayed at the vineyard where he lived after nearly everyone had evacuated. He and four other workers wanted to save the houses.
But as they doused the houses with water, fiery pine cones shot from the trees “like fireworks.” The flames surrounded them. “The fire came in an instant,” he told me. “Because the wind was very strong. We didn’t have a chance to escape.”
They jumped into a truck, but the driver, unable to see where he was going in the smoke, veered off the road. The truck rolled and flipped down the embankment but came to a stop right side up. The workers scrambled out into the flames and up the steep hillside as the truck exploded beneath them. “If I slip, I’m going to fall into the fire,” Roberto recalls thinking.
On his way up, he burned his leg, hands and face — requiring skin grafting at a burn center. Fortunately, firefighters rescued them. His employer paid his medical bills and rent while he recovered. But, advocates say, that kind of support is rare.
What isn’t rare is for undocumented workers to stay and try to salvage their owners’ properties or belongings as Roberto did, unwilling to lose the little they have.
Although undocumented workers are entitled to workers' compensation for injuries on the job, many work for farm labor contractors or other third parties, said Kelley of the Healdsburg City Council. Sometimes, they don’t even know their employers’ names to file for benefits.
Even with regulations in place, undocumented workers are often afraid to report violations. Without a pathway to citizenship and a social safety net that includes disaster insurance and hazard pay, these essential workers will be further devastated by the worsening effects of climate change. We need policies that recognize their critical contributions to this state.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.