With another wildfire season underway, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, July 19 held a long-awaited discussion about creating new rules governing access to evacuation zones during wildfires.
The meeting, which drew a considerable crowd, was a long time coming. Since the 2017 wildfires, the county has been using an interim policy developed by county employees that allows some agricultural businesses to bring workers into evacuation zones. Public records reviewed by the Bohemian show that, during the 2020 Glass Fire, numerous companies were allowed to bring workers into evacuation zones, sometimes to harvest grapes and complete other business.
That practice has raised concerns from some workers and advocates, who say that low-wage employees who are unable to skip work due to financial concerns are being put in danger by the current access policy.
For the past several years, North Bay Jobs with Justice (NBJWJ), a local labor nonprofit, has been pressing local lawmakers and businesses to develop greater protections for farm workers during wildfires. The group’s “Five For Farmworkers” campaign calls for changes including increased translation services for workers who speak Indigenous languages, payment for farm workers who lose work due to wildfires and increased wages for workers who do decide to work in hazardous conditions.
The campaign has drawn significant media coverage and, in turn, opposition from some in the wine industry. Earlier this year, an industry group, Sonoma Wine Industry for Safe Employees (Sonoma WISE), launched a website opposing NBJWJ’s campaign. The group has also brought wine industry workers to public meetings, including the July 19 hearing, to speak against NBJWJ’s campaign.
In June, the Guardian reported that nine of the roughly 150 workers Sonoma WISE brought to a May Board of Supervisors meeting had since told NBJWJ that they were pressured into attending by their employers. “If I didn’t do it, I would be out of a job,” one anonymous worker told the publication.
Asked about NBJWJ’s allegation, John Segale, a public relations consultant working for Sonoma WISE, told the Guardian, “Nobody has told anyone what to say. The vineyard employees chose to become active on this issue because they were mad at how they were repeatedly disrespected by [NBJWJ executive director] Max Alper and North Bay Jobs with Justice.”
At the July 19 meeting, county staff presented the board with five options for moving forward on the evacuation zone access policy. Of the choices, industry representatives and workers supporting Sonoma WISE spoke in favor of allowing the Sheriff’s Office to create and implement a policy. NBJWJ’s supporters backed the idea of the Board of Supervisors crafting their own policy.
Both groups voiced frustration that the county had not developed a formal policy before the start of fire season, given that the issue has been publicly discussed for several years and other counties already have policies in place. The delay means that business owners, workers and county authorities will once again navigate a fire season without publicly-debated regulations around who should be allowed access to farms during wildfires.
Similar discussions have been happening across the state. Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 1103, legislation that lays out a framework for counties to regulate access to dairies and other livestock during wildfires. The bill does not include regulations on plant-based agriculture businesses, including grape growers and wineries, leaving counties with those industries the task of creating their own access rules.
For months ahead of the meeting, Sonoma County had been promising to host a community meeting to hear input on its rules governing access to wildfire evacuation areas and other fire-safety related issues. However, the forum was delayed repeatedly and, ultimately, the supervisors simply discussed the evacuation zone access policy at a regular meeting on July 19.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, a member of an ad hoc committee created to discuss and craft new rules, said at the meeting that the public forum was canceled due to rising Covid cases and other factors.
Later in the meeting, Mike Martini, the owner of Taft Street Winery, spoke in favor of allowing the Sheriff’s Office to manage the process and urged the supervisors to pass a policy immediately.
“This is a safety issue, and decisions should be made by public safety professionals…,” Martini said. “These are the men and women who are going to determine what the evacuation areas are; these are the men and women who should be making the determination for access.”
Representatives of NBJWJ raised transparency concerns about allowing the Sheriff’s Office to develop the access program.
Max Bell Alper, NBJWJ’s director, said, “There’s just literally no transparency or accountability built into that option with the sheriff.”
“I hope the Sheriff’s Department works to build some trust in the community, but the reality is where people see the sheriff, especially immigrant workers, is during evictions, deportations and police violence. It’s not a fair system to allow only the sheriff’s to make decisions [around access],” Alper added.
During discussions about the path forward, Supervisor David Rabbitt voiced support for allowing the Sheriff’s Office to take control of the issue, while other supervisors leaned towards being directly involved in crafting a policy.
The supervisors dove into some of the finer points of whom should and should not be allowed to access evacuation zones and for what purposes—not to shoot drone footage for YouTube or feed one’s cats, for instance. Some supervisors noted that other industries, including construction and hospitality, are also impacted by wildfires.
Responding to a question from the board about the feasibility of the sheriff crafting a policy, Assistant Sheriff Jim Naugle said that the program should be a collaborative effort.
“Just to be clear, this is nothing we could do on our own anyway… I don’t have the resources or the knowledge to verify the agriculture operations that are plant based. I don’t have the resources or the knowledge to verify livestock or what other communities might be impacted,” Naugle said.
“For this to work, I think it has to be a collective thing and, I think, anything we would present to the board would include verification from [other departments],” Naugle added.
Ultimately, the supervisors directed county staff to return on Aug. 30 with a policy based on their conversation. Though other agencies may be involved in crafting the access policy, the enforcement during wildfires will be done by the Sheriff’s Office and other first responders.
The board made reference to some of NBJWJ’s other Five For Farmworkers campaign items, but did not take action on them.
Earlier this summer, the Board of Supervisors included $1 million in the county’s budget to pay workers who lose work during wildfires. The details of how that money will be used have not been determined.