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Working in farm fields during wildfire: 'It was full of smoke'

Farm worker Amadeo Sumano remembers showing up for work in Oxnard last week Tuesday after the Thomas Fire began the previous evening.

"When we all went to work, we saw the hills were full of smoke," said Sumano, 38, an immigrant from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. "All around, it was full of smoke."

As they picked strawberries in the open fields, he said he and other workers began feeling the effects of the fire, which has scorched over 200,000 acres and destroyed about 700 homes.

“Our eyes hurt," said Sumano, who spoke in Spanish by phone on Tuesday before beginning his shift. "And breathing, too. We were starting to get runny noses ... and our throats, and also our heads."

Sumano said their employer provided them with face masks two or three hours later, but no eye protection. He worked the full day, and over the next few days worked only a partial shift because the smoke "was suffocating — it very strong," he said.

Being sent home was a blessing — and a curse, because he earned less.

"Unfortunately, it's just the hours you work," he said. "That is the sad thing."

KPCC reported Monday on farm workers in Ventura County working in the smoky conditions without protective masks. Officials have warned people in fire-affected areas to take steps to protect their eyes and keep from breathing in smoke particulates that present health hazards to the respiratory system. 

Sumano said while he and his fellow workers received masks and worked shorter shifts, other field hands he knows who are employed by different growers weren't so lucky.

"There were ranches where they didn't give them (face masks)," Sumano said. "People were complaining, asking, 'Are they going to keep us here, or are we going to go home?'"

While some growers acted quickly to protect workers, others were slower to do so, farm worker advocates said. Volunteers with the advocacy group Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) reported finding numerous farm workers in Oxnard fields without protective masks during the worst of the smoke and ash.

"Over the course of the week, we did see improvements, with some of the agricultural associations and major growers really working to make sure they had masks out in the fields," said Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director with CAUSE.

Some Ventura County growers contacted by KPCC last week said they had taken measures to protect workers. One grower said workers were sent home and another said the workers were given face masks and the option to leave the fields.

Organizations representing local growers also said they sent guidance to members encouraging them to check air quality, provide face masks, and allow workers to leave if necessary.

But Zucker said Tuesday that as the fire spread north into Santa Barbara County, they again found farm workers, this time in the Santa Maria growing region, without protective gear.

State officials say that employers must protect workers from hazards, including wildfire smoke. But last week, the California Department of Industrial Relations issued an advisory that was less than clear, stating that employers with operations exposed to wildfire smoke “must consider taking appropriate measures" such as providing workers with face masks or limiting their time outdoors.  

The decision as to when to take these steps and which measures to take are in the hands of the employers. 

Critics say the safety rules aren’t strong or specific enough when it comes to wildfire smoke and farm labor. Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-27th Dist.) worked on protecting farm workers from heat illness several years ago. But there's nothing explicit that addresses farm worker protection during wildfires, she said.

"Certainly we see extraordinary hazards now because of these fires," Chu said. "And so there needs to be a renewed effort toward getting protections for our outdoor workers.”

Sumano, the farm worker, said the air in Oxnard has improved and he’s back to a full shift. But his wife, who works with him in the fields, got sick from the smoke. So she's now having to take time off, even though that means less money for the family.