Sonoma County's Latino Workforce Faces Job Losses From Fires

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Jose Diaz, 50, with grandson Jose Manuel, 11, by his truck and trailer at the Marin Center Exhibit Hall, which has become a shelter for many displaced Latino families. Diaz was working in renovations of a house that he believes burned down. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Marielena Flores and her family had just minutes to escape the inferno coming toward their home in northwest Santa Rosa Sunday night. By morning, Flores knew the Tubbs Fire had leveled entire neighborhoods on the city's east side, jumped a six-lane highway and incinerated her home of six years. She had seen the remains.

"It was just ashes and dust. Only the chimney was left standing," said Flores, 50, in Spanish. "My son's car was outside and it melted, and my neighbors' houses also burned."

Like other evacuees, Flores said she was relieved her family, including her 71-year-old mother, is safe.

The fires have killed at least 29 people as of Thursday afternoon and have destroyed thousands of structures as the blazes tear through Northern California.

The Tubbs Fire, which has destroyed wineries and hotels in Santa Rosa and nearby, is only 10 percent contained. Evacuees who work in agriculture and tourism in wine country worry if they'll have a job to return to.


Marisol Paniagua, 37, was planning to work picking grapes this week at a winery located in the area that the Tubbs Fire devastated. Instead, she has been living at an evacuation center in Marin County for days, using donations of food, clothes and toiletries.

The mother of three has no savings, and she doesn't know if her home will survive.

"It's very difficult right now because we just have a little bit of gas left in our car. That's how we are still able to drive around," said Paniagua, who has lived in the Santa Rosa area for more than 20 years. "But the fact is, we have nothing."

In California, Latinos make up 71 percent of the workforce at vineyards and other agricultural businesses, and more than 40 percent of the workforce in the tourism and hospitality industry, according to the state's Employment Development Department.

Marielena Flores, 50, with her mother Maria del Carmen Velazquez, 71, and brother Alfredo Velazquez, 41, outside an evacuation center in Santa Rosa on Oct. 9, 2017. The family lost their home to the fires. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

The fires have impacted both lower-income and wealthy residents  -- razing million-dollar homes and trailer parks alike. But for families living paycheck to paycheck who are left unemployed and homeless, it will be extremely difficult to recover, said Jose Diaz, a handyman and longtime resident.

Like many evacuees at shelters in the region, Diaz left his home in a rush, with his grandchildren and German Shepherd dog. He left behind thousands of dollars' worth of electrical, plumbing and carpentry tools that he worries could have burned. He doesn't have insurance, he said.

"I'm barely earning enough to get by," said Diaz, who is also concerned the fire destruction will worsen the area's skyrocketing housing costs. "Many families were left with nothing."

Justin Hayman, manager of the Fountaingrove Inn, echoed that concern for low-income workers. Before the fires, it was hard to hire employees at the hotel because of housing costs, he said. But for now, Hayman is focused on finding the hotel's 100 employees to give them their last paycheck.

"We had a total complete loss. The employees are obviously all unemployed at this time, and several of them have lost their homes as well," said Hayman, whose own home is also threatened by the fire. "We are devastated, saddened beyond words."

Hayman said the hotel owners are planning to rebuild, but the process could take years.

"The community is going to come together, and we're going to figure this thing out, but it's going to be a long road," said Hayman, who worries tourists will stay away from the region. "Especially in a time when guests may be a little bit fearful to come to this area, it could spell a disastrous situation for the economy here."

The charred remains of the Fountaingrove Inn in Santa Rosa.
The charred remains of the Fountaingrove Inn in Santa Rosa. (Sheraz Sadiq/KQED)

A 2015 report on hotel performance after natural disasters found that short-term demand for local hotels that are operational may increase as displaced people look for temporary housing. But in the long term, demand goes down due to losses in tourism.

For the wine country, tourism, agriculture and retail are intertwined. These industries make up about a third of Sonoma County's $25 billion economy, which until last week had seen record gains. Hotel occupancy in the county had reached a high of 77 percent, said Ben Stone, who directs the county's economic development board.

Stone is anticipating a significant hit to the local economy due to the fires, including the temporary loss of some migrant workers. But about 90 percent of the grapes were picked before the fires, and most hotels and wineries are still standing, he said.

"We'll see a downturn. But people will be finding ways to get back in business," said Stone, whose home also burned in the Coffey Lane neighborhood. "These fires will eventually end, and our tourism bureau will do an excellent job of putting out the word that it's a great time to come to wine country."

Marielena Flores, one of the hundreds of Santa Rosa residents who lost their homes to the fire, said that of all the belongings she lost, it's her kids' photos she misses the most.

"It's very sad that all those memories stayed there and just burned," she said, voice breaking. "It's as if their life's stories also burned."