Ahead of another fire season, Napa Valley's farmworkers face unknown health risk from more smoke exposure

The smoke, it seemed to Victor, was inescapable.

At night, it clung to his clothes, his hair, the inside of his nose; during the day, as he worked under the sun in the vineyards, he was embalmed by it.

It was the fall of 2020, and the hillsides of Napa Valley were lit by the Glass Fire, the second major fire of the season. The LNU Lightning Complex Fires, which had started six weeks prior, hadn’t even been fully contained at the Glass Fire's onset.

For Napa's grape growers, a new tide of smoke set off a second set of alarm bells: they thought once more of smoke taint, a phenomenon in which certain compounds in smoke seep into wine grapes, essentially ruining them. In the end, much of the year’s premium wine grape crop was left on the vine — a decision that subsequently devastated many of Napa’s farmworkers, who lost significant work to the wildfires.

For Victor, 36, who requested only his first name be used because of privacy concerns, there was no question: he would work when work was made available to him.

“It was ugly, because … well, people work out of necessity. They worry about having enough money to pay their bills and their rent,” he said in Spanish. “People search for a way to bring home a paycheck, regardless of the conditions.”

For farmworkers, the pressure of necessity mounted in 2020: Positive coronavirus cases among work crews meant workers were continually subject to stop-and-start work while they were tested for the virus, various workers told the Register. Workers who had tested positive for or been exposed to the coronavirus underwent 14-day quarantines, sometimes more than once, sometimes with no pay.

The federal FFRCA (Families First Coronavirus Response) Act included a provision mandating 80 hours — two workweeks — of paid sick leave for most American workers. Some eligible farmworkers in Napa Valley were provided no such leave by their employers, according to Julia DeNatale, vice president of community impact for the Napa Valley Community Foundation, or were not provided the sick pay in a timely manner.

NVCF stepped in to provide $1,000 checks to residents of River Ranch Farmworker Center in St. Helena, she said.

“We know... a lot of times undocumented residents are concerned about doing anything that’ll rock the boat,” she said in December of why NVCF stepped in to make payments to residents. “So if there is advocacy needed to say to an employer — ‘Isn’t it within my rights to get paid?’ — they’re not inclined to do that.”

Some residents, quarantined more than once, received two rounds of the relief, DeNatale said.

River Ranch resident Gilberto Perez, 63, was grateful for the Community Foundation’s assistance, he said, but $1,000 was significantly less than he could have made working in the vineyards. Perez spent nearly a month of the early summer in quarantine after two separate exposures to COVID-19, an experience that made him deeply wary of the virus.

Money was already on Perez's mind when River Ranch fell under wildfire evacuation warning in late September of 2020. Residents were ushered down to Napa Valley College, which had been turned into a communal shelter. Perez knew the county was offering displaced residents hotel rooms, but he and his fellow residents had arrived amid a tidal wave of evacuees. The hotel rooms, they thought, should be saved for families. 

But they were nervous, too, about contracting the coronavirus from a stay in the communal shelter. They spoke with River Ranch’s facilities manager, who said they could return, according to Vicente Villalvazo, 39, Perez’s fellow resident. When they attempted to reenter the area, they were turned away by police.

In desperation, Perez, Villalvazo, and their peers asked a vineyard management company outside the evacuation zone if they could park their cars in a dirt lot typically host to idle machinery. They received permission; five of them slept in their cars there for nine days, returning when they could to Napa Valley College to shower.

“We couldn’t do anything,” Perez said in Spanish, “Because we needed the work.”

They went to work each day; some of them ventured out to buy nonperishable food and brand new clothing in lieu of having access to laundry, Villalvazo said.

He pulled up photographs he’d taken with his phone during those nine days. One showed Perez, his shirt and jeans wholly smothered in what looked like soot, eating chips and leaning against his car. 

“It’s ugly,” said Victor, who was not among the men who slept in their cars. “Many companies don’t feel responsible for bringing men out to work like that. They say, ‘you’re looking for work? Well, there it is.’ They never say, ‘alright, it’s bad out there. Don’t work today. We’ll pay you half of your wages for the week so you can put food on your table for your family.’”

The health impact of smoke exposure

Increased exposure to particulate matter in wildfire smoke - especially to PM 2.5, the smallest and most harmful particles - increases mortality and morbidity, according to Mary Prunicki, director of air pollution and health research at Stanford's Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy & Asthma Research. “You’re going to be less healthy, and you’re going to die earlier,” she said of individuals with extended exposure to wildfire smoke.

There is still much researchers do not know about the health implications of smoke exposure, Prunicki said. 

“There are not as many studies looking at the long-term impacts of smoke exposure, especially like last year where you get these bursts (of exposure),” she said. “We don’t know that will impact people 10 years from now.”

There is “very little research” on what the health impacts of smoke exposure might be for farmworkers, Prunicki said. Speaking generally, exposure to wildfire smoke prompts increases in respiratory disorders and heart problems, she said.

The past few fire seasons have increasingly overlapped with harvest time in Napa Valley, which begins in late August and runs as late as November. Last year’s LNU Lightning Complex fires, thought of as especially early in the season, began just a few weeks after harvest did, and the Glass Fire began not long after.

Harvesting grapes is a time-sensitive endeavor. Because the ripeness or sugar levels in grapes can change significantly over the course of just a few hours, most growers don’t have the luxury of waiting out the smoke, industry members say.

Napa County grants agricultural employers "ag passes," which allow agricultural employers and their crews to circumvent roadblocks like the kind Perez and Villalvazos encountered on their way home to River Ranch. The practice began after the 2017 wildfires, according to Napa County Agricultural Commissioner Tracy Cleveland. So long as Cal Fire and other relevant law enforcement agencies determine conditions aren’t catastrophic or volatile, ag passes essentially act as a kind of passport through road blockades into evacuation zones, she said.

“What happens is they come up to a roadblock, which is done by sheriff’s deputies, and after consultation with Cal Fire, we’ll allow access,” Napa County Sheriff John Robertson said. “We have them leave their identification at the checkpoint, and then we give them an hour or two to get in and do what they need to do.”

Asked if Napa County should perform a welfare check on workers entering evacuation zones — for example, determining whether they had been given proper access to N95 respirators and instruction on their usage - Cleveland said the question was a "tough" and "interesting" one. 

"I would say that is the purview of Cal/OSHA. They have inspectors that are out and about. I don't know how often they're out or what exactly they're doing, but that is a function of Cal/OSHA," Cleveland said. "I also know growers are very proactive here, and they are absolutely concerned with their employees' well-being, so it's a consideration they make any time there's a disaster."

Once given clearance from Cal Fire, employers ultimately make decisions about whether their employees will enter an evacuation zone regardless of air quality. Cal/OSHA regulations require employers to provide employees with N95 respirators when the air quality index, which measures pollutants in the air, reaches 151 and is classified as 'unhealthy.' But no regulations address the safety of employees working in an evacuation zone, according to Teresa Andrews, education and outreach specialist with the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at the University of California, Davis.

In response to a request for comment, a Cal/OSHA spokesperson said the agency enforces Title 8 “workplace safety requirements" in evacuation zones. 

Title 8 requires employers to “remove all exposed personnel” from exposure to “an immediate hazard," but makes no mention of evacuation zones. Cal/OSHA has not issued citations for work in an evacuation zone in Napa County, the spokesperson said.

"A lot” of the workers permitted to enter evacuation zones are wearing "bandanas,” according to Robertson. Asked if the Sheriff’s Office performs worker welfare checks before letting workers pass, he said growers “were not marching people into the vineyards to work.”

“If you have respiratory issues, if you feel uncomfortable or feel you can’t work — we don’t have forced labor here,” he said. “We’re in a society where if you want to feed your family and pay your rent, you have to work, and that may be pressuring them (to work) instead of just sitting back.”

Farmworkers are facing additional financial pressure from overtime regulation, River Ranch residents say. Perez, for one, has taken up gardening work on the weekends to make up for decreases in weekly hours since the implementation of Assembly Bill 1066, which dropped the overtime threshold for agricultural workers from 60 hours pre-2016 to 45 hours in 2021. Beginning January of 2022, overtime regulation for farmworkers will mirror other industries in the state at 40 hours.

“Before, one would work a volume of hours, 55 a week,” Jose Segura, 55, a River Ranch resident who also worked through last year’s fires, said. “They say next year it will be 40. It’s like: who is thinking about us? Who is thinking of the farmworker? They lowered the hours, but they don’t give us raises for the cost of living.”

Philip Martin, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis, said it was difficult to know the impact of any one variable — overtime regulation or the pandemic, for example - on farmworkers’ financial and physical wellbeing. Still, the increasing frequency of severe wildfire is part of a larger, damaging trend related to climate change, according to Martin.

“Working conditions are likely to get worse for workers because climate change means things are warmer, and we’ll have more fires,” he said. The seasonal nature of vineyard work also leaves many seasonal workers vulnerable, he added.

“A former head of the EDD (Employment Development Department) once said to a group of us: ‘what’s the best way to help a farmworker? Get them out of agriculture,’” he recalled. “There is no other sector in which you’re going to get a lower wage. It is a correct statement. If you look at EDD data … it’s partly because the hourly wage in ag might be higher than somewhere like McDonald’s. But McDonald’s can be a year-round job, whereas ag (for these workers) is not.”

The pandemic has derailed efforts to create standardized guidance for farmworkers working in evacuation zones, according to Andrews, who said there is general agreement among her colleagues that the protections are needed.

“If fire is happening around the fields, they are not just going to abandon the crops - even if they lose the crop, they’ll clean up the fields,” she said of grape growers, adding that Napa Valley employers had the "spearheaded" worker safety movement.

Victor, the River Ranch resident, says the fires had no apparent lasting impact on his health. Ahead of another fire season, though — this one even dryer than the last — he wonders how that'll change as he ages.

“The smoke doesn’t affect me much right now,” he said in Spanish. “But once you arrive at a certain age, it impacts you more, I would think. When you’re older, that’s when the complications from smoke arrive. All the smoke, all the damage. I mean, right now, I feel fine. I’m not sure (how it’ll impact me) when I’m older.”

Register reporter Sarah Klearman reported this story with support from the Impact Fund, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

[This story was originally published by Napa Valley Register.]

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