Kincade Fire Displaces Farmworkers, Disrupts Sonoma Grape Harvest

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Farmworkers line up to register at an evacuation site at the Healdsburg Community Center on Oct. 24, 2019. (Tiffany Camhi/KQED)

The fast-moving Kincade Fire burning near the town of Geyserville erupted during grape harvesting season, causing havoc for vineyards and farmworkers in an area heavily dependent on the wine industry.

Vineyard management company owner Duff Bevill was out with dozens of workers picking grapes at a ranch in the Alexander Valley — an area that later became engulfed by flames — when he saw smoke approaching Wednesday night.

Heavy smoke envelops vineyards that are partially charred along Highway 128, near Geyserville, on Oct. 24, 2019 (Danielle Venton/KQED)

His crew had to abandon the job, he said, as sheriff's deputies told them to evacuate. Bevill said they still have two more days of harvest, but whether they can finish it depends on how the fire progresses. He planned to move his crew to other vineyards that have not yet been affected by the fire.

“The same range east of Geyserville was burning last night [as] during the Tubbs Fire,” Bevill said Thursday, referring to the inferno that also destroyed parts of the city of Santa Rosa in 2017. “The same hills are burning.”

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He said the current fire had burned a friend’s home, built in the 1920s.

“We’ve got friends who’ve already been impacted, just like the Tubbs Fire,” said Bevill, as he hosed down the land surrounding his own home near Geyserville, to try to prevent any embers from lighting up his property. “It‘s very familiar. It’s heartbreaking what’s taking place right now.”

While Bevill’s crew is almost done with harvest season, others could still be picking grapes for two more weeks, depending on the grape variety, said Lauren Cartwright, with the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

As sunset, about 90 farmworkers and half a dozen families camped out at the Healdsburg Community Center, which the city had turned into an evacuation center.

Farmworkers arrive at the shelter from Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery on Oct. 24, 2019. (Tiffany Camhi/KQED)

Those agricultural workers were brought or sent to the shelter by employers, because the vineyards where they are usually housed were enveloped in heavy smoke and had to be evacuated, said Leticia Romero, who directs community engagement for the nonprofit Corazon Healdsburg, which has offices at the Healdsburg Community Center.

She said the shelter is providing meals, while cots were set up so that people could spend the night there.

“The plan is to continue to keep the evacuation center open … depending on the air quality, and the containment of the fire,” said Romero, adding that the shelter was not at capacity at that point.

One of those agricultural workers is Adolfo Lopez, of Michoacan, Mexico, who is in the country on an H-2A guest worker visa. His employer at the Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery drove him and other workers Thursday morning to the shelter, where he’s been ever since.

Lopez said in Spanish that two out of the three years he has picked grapes in Northern California, he has had to return to Mexico early because of wildfires.

“It’s kind of crazy,” said Lopez, who has a ticket to fly home this Sunday. “But if we have to leave early because of safety, I think that’s best.”

Todd Clow (left), Ferrari-Carano operations manager, helped relocate farmworkers at the winery, including Adolfo Lopez (right), to an evacuation shelter on Oct. 24, 2019. (Tiffany Camhi/KQED)

Under new California regulations, if outdoor workers are exposed to harmful wildfire smoke, their employer must provide them with free respirators, such as the N95 mask, and training on how to use those masks properly.

Alternatively, employers must try to change workers’ jobs to an indoor environment with better air quality.

An air quality index of 151 or greater indicates the harmful levels of particulate matter that can hurt the lungs — often released when fires burn structures, said Frank Polizzi, a spokesman with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA.

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“The onus in California is on the employer to protect the worker,” Polizzi said. “If workers are concerned, they should mention it to their supervisors.”

He added that employees should log complaints with the agency if employers don’t address their concerns.

“We never ask about the employee’s immigration status,” he said.

The emergency regulation went into effect this summer, after members of the public pushed the agency to adopt stricter rules, due to concerns for worker safety during the 2017 Tubbs Fire, said Polizzi.

He added that the agency is currently developing more permanent rules to protect outdoor workers from wildfire smoke.

Tiffany Camhi contributed to this report.