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California Wildfires Illuminate Labor, Immigration, & Public Health Issues

California Wildfires Illuminate Labor, Immigration, & Public Health Issues

Earlier this month, unprecedented wildfires broke out across Northern California killing more than 40 people, destroying approximately 5700 structures, and forcing thousands of families to evacuate. Here are some of the conversations we've been following in the wake of the wildfires:

Disaster response workers are especially prone to health and safety hazards: Firefighters fight fatigue as well as fire, pulling extended shifts without sufficient breaks. Firefighters in California normally work 24 hour shifts, and then have 24 hours off. But those working to contain these wildfires have had no real rest for days. Some have worked as much as 80 hours straight.1 On October 11, 2017, Cal Fire’s deputy incident commander in Napa said of the firefighters, “There’s no doubt there’s extreme fatigue.”2 At least one worker, a contracted water-tender driver named Garrett Paiz, has been killed.

The supply of firefighting, rescue, and cleanup workers is bolstered with incarcerated labor, temporary workers, and day laborers. Last week in Sonoma Valley, there were 464 firefighters including about 60 state prison inmates.1 There are persistent questions about the safety and ethics of using incarcerated labor to fight fires - workers are reportedly paid less than 2 dollars per hour.3

Anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric make immigrant communities more vulnerable during and after natural disasters: After the wildfires started, “dozens of undocumented workers and their families” drove towards the Sonoma Coast because they were afraid of being deported and detained at emergency shelters. According to Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, some have slept on the beach.4 Local law enforcement has done their best to dispel the rumors that ICE is at evacuation shelters: Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said in a press conference that rumor is not true and urged residents to go to the shelters.5

But getting into shelters is not the only obstacle for undocumented immigrants affected by the fires. Federal funds for recovery cannot be used to serve undocumented people. Many of these people are farmworkers who additionally have had their livelihoods taken away, and/or continue to work in hazardous conditions.6

Our public health response must also address the unseen, toxic hazards: Smoke and ash from the wildfires contributed to extremely poor air quality throughout the Bay Area, and thousands of burnt homes, filled with toxic chemicals, will be a challenge to dispose of safely.

For a week during the fires the Bay Area as far south as Fremont had an air quality index of 160 and above. At that level the EPA issues this health message: “People with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion. Everyone else should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion.”7

In the areas where structures burned, toxic chemicals have become concentrated in debris and ash. Residents have been digging through what is left of their homes to see what can be saved but officials are forcefully warning them to stop. Public health officials and cleanup experts say that “the road ahead to cleanup and the safe return to properties will probably not be smooth or fast,” and a spokesman for FEMA said that “[t]here are more questions than answers.”8

The UC Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP) has put together a resource list for workers cleaning up after wildfires. Find it here.