When Brewster resident Erandy Montiel heard during the wildfires early last week that a large group of farmworkers had been evacuated to a city park, she went with her mom to see if they could help. Her father, Francisco Montiel, was a farmworker who died of COVID-19 in August, and she has been advocating for more protections for those in the fields and warehouses.
“It broke our hearts,” she said of what she saw Tuesday evening.
The men she met — foreign guest workers from a labor camp run by a Bridgeport orchard — told Montiel they had spent a cold night without blankets, some in buses lining the park and some outside.
Montiel’s mom runs a small business selling blankets, among other items, and they ran home to get them and bring them back. A bevy of other community members and the Red Cross also swooped in, providing food and shelter.
But the delay underscored the vulnerability of farmworkers, including those from other countries without any local support system, amid frighteningly fast-moving fires hitting during the apple harvest.
Farmworkers are more exposed to the hazards of wildfires than many. Smoke surrounds those who work outside and can create what Edgar Franks, political director of the farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, calls a greenhouse effect, making the already hot Eastern Washington climate feel even hotter. Farmworkers already have a higher incidence of respiratory diseases like asthma and tuberculosis.
The state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) requires employers to provide a safe place to work but has no specific regulations related to wildfires, according to spokesman Tim Church. Nonmandatory recommendations include rescheduling work and moving it to less smoky areas.
Wildfires can also be devastating for agricultural employers. One Okanogan County rancher, directly in the path of the massive Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires that began in Omak, lost at least 20 to 30 cows, 100 miles of fencing and 2,500 tons of hay stored to feed his cattle over the winter. Days later, he was riding around his 30,000 acres looking for injured and dead cows.
“We’ve had fires before but nothing like this,” said the rancher, Dale Smith.
Complicating everything, as usual, is COVID-19.
“This is the crisis within a crisis,” said Andrea Schmitt, an attorney at Columbia Legal Services who has been advocating for farmworkers during the pandemic.
As fires headed toward Bridgeport, Douglas County, last Monday, an evacuation order sent people fleeing. Some didn’t go far. Gebbers Farms, which has two labor camps in the area, took workers from one camp housing more than 100 workers to the other about a half-mile away, said spokeswoman Amy Philpott. It was safer there, she said.
That option wasn’t available for the farmworkers who landed in a park in Brewster, Okanogan County.
The Red Cross, which in the past has set up shelters in Brewster High School near the park where the evacuees arrived, has since the pandemic been relying on hotels rather than large, one-room shelters, said spokeswoman Betsy Robertson. She said the organization let local officials know it had hotel rooms available in Wenatchee, about 70 miles away.
Downed power lines and closed roads made it tough to execute that plan, Robertson said.
At the request of local officials, the Red Cross set up a traditional shelter in the high school Tuesday evening, spacing cots 6 feet apart in the gym, according to Robertson. Ninety-one people stayed there that night.
In the morning, a bus picked them up and took them to work, Robertson said. The same number came back for the next several nights, returning to their regular housing after dinner on Saturday.
Businesses from around the region donated meals, including a Brewster bakery and a Wenatchee Mexican restaurant, according to Sandra Zumudio, a Brewster resident who helped coordinate them.
Between 100 and 200 others also ate last week at the shelter, which closed over the weekend. Robertson did not know if those were farmworkers. Brewster has seen evacuees from the wider community, according to Okanogan County Emergency Management Director Maurice Goodall.
As well as sending people into a group shelter, the wildfires have made guarding against COVID-19 more difficult in another way, noted Schmitt of Columbia Legal Services. Ventilation is crucial indoors, where the virus spreads more easily. Yet, when the air is toxic, you shouldn’t open windows.
There is one helpful byproduct of the pandemic. “At least now, workers have access to masks,” said Franks, of Familias Unidas por la Justicia. State rules require employers to provide them at no cost.
Franks said he remains concerned, however, that the kind of masks most workers have, cloth or single-use ones, don’t offer the best protection against smoke.
L&I is not recommending N95 masks, which if fitted correctly filter out tiny soot particles, because they are needed by health professionals working on the pandemic’s front line. Agency guidance noted some workers may ask to wear dust or KN95 masks, considered better at filtering particles than cloth but not as much as N95.
Gebbers Farms, one of the state’s largest agricultural employers, gave out KN95 masks with paychecks to its 2,500 guest workers Friday, according to Philpott. She wasn’t sure if Gebbers’ domestic workers got KN95 Friday, too, but said they are available.
Zaira Sanchez, emergency relief coordinator for the northwest branch of the UFW Foundation, a sister organization to the farmworker union, said her organization has been able to get thousands of coveted N95 masks despite being in short supply, and is in the process of giving them out to farmworkers throughout the area.
Sanchez has also been visiting workers to see how they are doing during the wildfires. Three men she met in Yakima, guest workers from Mexico, said by phone they had been buying their own masks — like semi-ski masks you can pull up to your eyes — because the cloth masks provided by their employers are uncomfortable and don’t provide as much coverage.
Still, said the three workers, speaking in Spanish while Sanchez interpreted, the smoke sometimes irritates their eyes and noses. When that happens, they sometimes want to stop work, they said, but have been told they can only take their regularly scheduled breaks.
In addition to shortening hours, some employers have called off work for a day or more because of smoky conditions, said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.
“A lot of that depends on exactly where the growers are, and where they are in their harvest cycle,” he said. “Our apple harvest starts in August and goes into November. So different people are picking different varieties at different times. If you’re trying to do harvest now while conditions are really smoky then you have serious concerns about how to keep your workers safe.”
Property damage is not as big a concern for orchard owners because fields of green trees are usually irrigated. “They tend not to burn completely,” he said, although “you might get a row of trees on the edge scorched.”
Ranches, with their pastureland, are a different story.
Smith, whose 100-year-old, 30,000-acre ranch is on the Colville Indian Reservation, near the town of Monse, Okanogan County, was in Montana visiting a son last Sunday when he got a 10 p.m. call about a raging fire on the way. It didn’t look good. Winds were blowing 30 to 40 mph, he heard.
“We jumped in our rig and headed out,” he recalled.
They drove 11 hours and pulled in about noon the next day. “The fire had not quite got to our ranch headquarters,” he said. But some 30 people from the agricultural community and beyond had gotten there to help the Fire Department, knowing Smith’s ranch was in the eye of the storm.
“Our vet was here. He was on his hands and knees clearing brush,” Smith said. “And he had just had back surgery six months ago.” Others brought bulldozers to create fire lines, one brought a generator to get a water pump going because power was out.
Seeing his friends and neighbors stand behind him, he said, “was really emotional.”
They got fire lines around the ranch’s handful of buildings and its haystacks composed of 1,300-pound bales. They saved the buildings but not the hay, set ablaze by embers blowing from a half-mile away.
Between the hay and the fencing, the destruction will cost Smith dearly, he said. He ticked off some figures that add up to more than a half-million dollars.
“The worst part of it is, after a fire like this burns so hot, you can’t really pasture it much the next year. So you’re affected for two to three years.”