Wildfires Reveal Gaps In Emergency Planning For Thousands Of Migrant Farmworkers

Sep 1, 2015
Originally published on September 3, 2015 5:53 pm

Thousands of farm workers living in wildfire country are particularly vulnerable in times of emergency. One problem is that warnings in Spanish don’t reach everyone that needs to hear them.

As high winds continued to fan a wildfire near Omak, Martín de la Rosa and his co-workers got the day off from picking apples because of the smoke. They drank beer and listened to music outside a cluster of small cabins surrounded by orchards. But they didn’t get any information about fires burning in the Okanogan Complex until they were dangerously close to home.

By the time the foreman came to see them, de la Rosa says, “We were seeing smoke, and planes were out spraying.”

De la Rosa says the foreman offered no information about escape routes or evacuation shelters, nothing about who to call or where to go. “Nobody said anything,” he says, throwing up his arms. “Just that there’s a fire, nothing else."

Like many other migrant workers, De la Rosa has no car of his own. He and thousands of others living in farm labor camps in Eastern Washington need help to get out in an emergency. To be clear, de la Rosa does think his employer or other workers would help him evacuate if need be, but he says he has no way to know for sure, and no information to go on.

On the radio, English language warnings crackle over the AM dial periodically, or flash across the ticker tape at the bottom of the screen on TV, relaying guidance from emergency managers on evacuation levels in specific neighborhoods.

The only Spanish signal that reaches de la Rosa’s cabin is a faint music station. This year, emergency managers in Okanogan County are scrambling to put better alert systems in place for Spanish-speaking residents. “We definitely have seen the need and are aware of it, says Angela Seydel, a spokesperson with the incident management team. “But it’s purely a manpower issue. Our resources are limited.”

A Spanish language hotline and Facebook page launched only after fires had destroyed a number of homes in the area. Even 24 hours later, none of the half dozen farmworkers interviewed by Northwest Public Radio were aware of either resource.

Michele Besso, an attorney in the farmworker unit of Northwest Justice Project, describes the current system for evacuations of migrant housing as “completely haphazard.”'

“It depends on the individual grower whether they have some kind of [evacuation] plan, or whether they have no plan at all,” Besso says.

Last year, what was then the largest wildfire in state history whipped through the same region, destroying all the migrant housing at King Blossom Orchards in nearby Brewster. “The workers in Brewster last year only escaped because somebody woke up at the last minute, when the fire was at their door practically—luckily they had cars—and they were able to get out,” Besso recalls.

Tim McLaughlin, president of AgriMACS, which manages that orchard, disputes that account. He says foremen told workers they might need to evacuate with about three hours to spare, but that some workers chose go back to sleep. Nonetheless, McLaughlin says the fire was a wake-up call. “We’ve experienced it once, god forbid that happens again, we’ll be better prepared this next time.”

At King Blossom Orchards, those preparations include early notice of evacuations and going over an escape plan with employees early in the season. Tougher regulations from the state Department of Health are on the way too, like requirements for smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in all migrant housing.

Online, the agency keeps a list of every migrant labor camp in the state. But it’s yet to share that list with local emergency responders. Tim McLaughlin says that should be “an easy fix.” Officials with the Department of Health cited the need to scrub migrant housing records of unrelated information first. With smoke still in the air, farmworkers like Martín de la Rosa are returning to work.” Honestly, I don’t have a good sense of the danger because I don’t have any information,” de la Rosa says. “I just know the hills are burning.”

Copyright 2015 Northwest Public Radio

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