Wildfires and the Agriculture Workplace

Sarah M Rios, University of Wisconsin Madison
Danielle Schmidt, UW Madison

In September 2020, dramatic scenes of California farmworkers laboring in smoke-filled fields amid a raging wildfire captured global attention. Juxtaposed with a romanticized imagery of picturesque rolling hills, vineyards, and wineries, the images were shocking. Many were as confused as they were angered. How could this be possible? How could this be acceptable, or even legal? In this study, we take a two-part approach to address questions like these. We first draw on archival data and use media analysis to trace the parallel history of agricultural labor in Northern California and the dramatically changing climate, paying particular attention to the struggle for labor and human rights in disaster response efforts over the last forty years (1981-2020) of heightened wildfire activity. We then pair this in-depth historical analysis with a contemporary review of the effects of wildfires on agricultural labor using a post-2020 lens. Together with community advocacy organizations, we employ a case study approach to survey and interview wine grape farmworkers in Napa and Sonoma Counties where, over the last twenty years, more than 600,000 acres have been affected by wildfires. While several recent California policies directly target smoke exposure for farmworkers, including a first of its kind policy that sets an outdoor workplace regulation for PM2.5, we suggest that building a just and climate resilient future will demand attention on the cumulative effects of disaster that fester over time. Given that the frequency of extreme fire weather in California has doubled since the 1980s, the findings of this study have immediate implications for not only the health and wellbeing of farmworkers, but, more broadly, for the future of labor rights in a rapidly changing climate.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 37. Climate Change and labor