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From the Soil: Farmworkers Building Fire Resilience

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A crew of farmworkers, arranged in a single file line carry fire hoses out to a field.
A crew of farmworkers carry fire hoses during a prescribed burn training held at the Audubon Canyon Ranch.  (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

“From the Soil” is our six-part series, about land and life in Northern California. 

On a crisp afternoon at the Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen, a group of twenty one farmworkers suit up in firefighter gear. Women and men take turns helping each other strap on backpacks and fire helmets in preparation for another intense day of prescribed burn trainings. These are carefully planned low intensity fires set under specific environmental conditions, intended to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

Many of these immigrant and Indigenous farmworkers typically work in the grape fields throughout Sonoma County, but extreme drought, flooding, and massive wildfires have made these jobs more precarious.

Jose Luis Duce, a fire training specialist, instructs the group on how to properly wrap fire hoses. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

Seeing the need for alternative jobs that provide safety training and fair wages, a coalition of organizations including North Bay Jobs with Justice, Audubon Canyon Ranch, and Resilience Force teamed up to create paid opportunities that tackle our climate crisis head on. Part of this work includes certifying farmworkers to do prescribed burns on private lands throughout the North Bay, as a way to prevent the build up of fuel before fire season.

More On Prescribed Burns

Prescribed burns are not a new practice by any means. They are rooted in many cultures. Some of these farmworkers have already practiced prescribed burns in their homelands in Mexico and Central America, and bring this ancestral ecological knowledge to their new line of work.

In this way, farmworkers are leading the charge in climate justice organizing, championing the need for vegetation and fire management jobs.

A man holds a yellow fire hose to a large container of water.
Crispín López Cruz pumps water into the water tank using a fire hose. (Pendarivs Harshaw/KQED)

On this episode of Rightnowish, we speak with farmworkers Maria Salinas, Sandra de León, and Crispín López Cruz about what it means to create a fire resilient future, and how they are applying traditional ecological knowledge to their efforts. We also hear from North Bay Jobs with Justice organizer Aura Aguilar, on the necessity of good paying jobs for farmworkers who seek to restore ecological balance amidst climate chaos.

Read the full episode transcript.


Below are lightly edited and translated excerpts of Marisol’s  conversation with Maria Salinas, Sandra de León, and Crispín López Cruz. Listen to the podcast to hear the full conversation. 

Maria Salinas: In Oaxaca, where I’m from, before we do a prescribed burn we really make sure that we clean up the area first. Then we do the burn and we use the ashes to serve as nutrients for the earth so that we can then grow other crops such as corn. After the burn, you can see that there is regrowth.  

It can be really scary living here in this county with the prospect of there being wildfires. As a mother of four, I just want my children to be able to not have fear, but also to focus on mutual help with the community, taking care of one another, and having a connection with the land.

A farmworker learning firefighting and firelighting practices filling up the water tank on an all terrain vehicle.
Farmworkers practice filling a water tank strapped to an ATV. (Pendarvis Harshaw /KQED)

Sandra de León: In the grape fields, we make the land work harder than it should be working. We don’t let it just produce what it wants to produce or what it needs to produce. We push it past its limit.

What I’m learning here in this [prescribed burn] training is that fire is not bad for the land. Fire, when done thoughtfully, can actually help promote regrowth, can really take care of the land and help it stabilize. Everything that I’m learning, what I really want to do is  share it with other people so that they can also know how to take care of the land. 

A woman and man wearing a fire helmet and gloves connect two fire hoses together.
Workers connect two firehoses during a firefighting and prescribed burn training. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

Crispín López Cruz: In Oaxaca, my family’s farmland would often become oversaturated with water during times of heavy rain. I helped my grandpa fix the erosion that was happening. He taught me that we could cut up pieces of oak tree and put branches [in the soil] in a way that would block too much water from reaching all of the crops and ultimately washing the soil away.

More than anything I like to take care of the earth because it is what gives life for every human being.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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