The already unprecedented 2020 wildfire season – made worse by climate change – reached a grim milestone on Sunday when California officials announced the fires had burned 4 million acres. The fires have burned an area larger than the entire state of Connecticut, more than double the previous record. The fires, which have directly killed at least 31 people and destroyed more than 8,400 buildings are also likely responsible for thousands of additional deaths as toxic smoke has blanketed parts of the state. They have also put farmworkers at exceptional risk. “People need to understand the hidden devastation these fires have brought on farmworkers economically,” Ezequiel Guzman, president of Latinos Unidos del Condado de Sonoma, told KQED. “How are they going to pay rent? How are they going to feed their families?”
Nearly 14,000 lightning strikes over a 72-hour period ignited more than 900 wildfires in August. According to experts, however, the underlying cause of the fires’ size and destruction is climate change. “If the lightning caused the home run, global warming put runners on base,” Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University, told the New York Times.
Vulnerable farmworkers pay heavy price
The California wildfires have taken a particularly heavy toll on the state’s farmworkers. More than half of California farmworkers lack official documentation and are thus especially vulnerable. Across the state, farmworkers have been forced to continue working despite the health risks posed by wildfire smoke and COVID-19. “They have no other choice,” added Gervacio Peña Lopez, director of Movimiento Cultural de la Unión Indígena, which supports indigenous immigrants from Mexico, many of them undocumented farmworkers.
Last week the Glass Fire, which tore through Napa and Sonoma counties, presented another new crisis for farmworkers. Heavy smoke from the California wildfires has tainted grapes, forcing many wine growers to abandon the season’s crop. Federal law prohibits laborers without documentation from accessing unemployment insurance and coronavirus relief. (Records: New York Times $, LA Times $, AP, San Francisco Chronicle, Bloomberg $, PBS NewsHour; Farmworkers: KQED; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season)