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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Megafire Hard Times

Air Date: Week of

The US 2020 wildfire season has seen over 100 fires on the West Coast, with smoke from the fires reaching as far as Europe. (Photo: Justin Dolske, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Wildfires have been raging throughout the US west since July, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, burning millions of acres, and cloaking the region in dangerous air pollution. Some of the people most affected by these simultaneous crises are those in the region dealing with poverty and housing insecurity. Living on Earth's Bobby Bascomb reports.


BASCOMB: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb

DOERING: And I’m Jenni Doering. So, Bobby you’ve been looking into the 2020 wildfires for us this week. What have you found?

BASCOMB: Well, where to begin… I mean this wildfire season is just off the charts. More than 5 million acres have been burned, dozens of people killed, hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes. The 2020 wildfire season is breaking records across the west coast. I read a Los Angeles Times headline that sums it up well: “The Worst Wildfire Season Ever. Again.”

DOERING: Exactly, it really seems like each year is worse than the one before.

BASCOMB: Right, and the off the scale wildfires this year released so much smoke that it actually caused hazy air as far east as Europe. And I saw a map at one point that showed nearly all of the West Coast had substandard air quality and Portland, Oregon actually had the worst air quality in the world. People were advised to stay inside and run air conditioners as much as possible but that got me thinking, what about people that can’t go inside or need to continue to work outside. So, I reached out to Jesus, he’s a farm worker currently in California picking tomatoes and originally from Mexico.

DOERING: Oh, I remember Jesus, Bobby. We talked with him back in the Spring about how he was managing to stay safe as an essential worker during the coronavirus pandemic.

BASCOMB: Right! He was really worried then about the virus. Fortunately, he’s healthy but now has a new concern – working outside every day with the terrible air quality.


JESUS: for the last few days the contamination has been horrible. The sky looked very cloudy and looked as though it was about to rain but it was all due to contamination. I feel really worried about my own health. I inhale the contamination. Even ash was falling here on top of cars. Going outside the contamination was really bad and it felt as though there wasn’t enough oxygen to breathe. 

BASCOMB: Jesus says his employer is providing masks but not the N95 masks that health experts say people need under these circumstances, and his employers haven’t offered any advice about how to work safely.


JESUS: They just let us know when it’s time to get to work and that’s all. They don’t really notice the bad air quality and are just worried about the tomato harvest. They don’t seem worried about us workers.

BASCOMB: But despite the health risks, Jesus and the thousands of agricultural workers like him continue to work outside every day to harvest the food we eat. He says he has no choice.

Agricultural workers have to deal with ash-covered produce and dangerous outdoor air quality. (Photo: Chris Branam, Oregon State University, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)


JESUS: In reality us field workers have to keep going to work because if we don’t work we won’t make money. We don’t have any form of government assistance to support us and stay at home. We have to go in order to be able to eat. We have no other option than to deal with the bad air quality and continue working. 

BASCOMB: And Jenni, regardless of the work they do immigrants, like Jesus, are often more at risk than the general population during catastrophic events like a wildfire.

DOERING: Oh really, why is that?

BASCOMB: Well, for one they may not speak English and so they often aren’t getting the same information about hazards and evacuations quickly. And many recent immigrants work low paying jobs and don’t have savings to fall back on if they lose their homes or can’t work. I spoke to Joel Iboa with Causa. That’s an immigrant rights organization based in Oregon that provides relief services for the Latinx community there.

IBOA: Immigrants are in a position in which their lives are more likely to be destroyed by an inconvenience like a wildfire than say family with a nice house in Mackenzie.They can afford to pay to stay in a hotel or you know, may have another home. But you know, a lot of these immigrant families, the homes they were in was all that they had. And that's what's particularly awful.

BASCOMB: Joel told me about a trailer park in Phoenix, Oregon that was home to a large immigrant community and was completely destroyed by the fires.

IBOA: And the reason why it's so devastating is we're not just talking about, you know, one or two family members, we’re talking about generations of families that live in one area. So you could have sort of a grandfather and a grandma living in one unit. And then right across the street, you know, it's their, their kids, or their grandkids. And so we had this trailer Park community that was pretty tight knit, and multi generational, and it overnight just burned to the ground.

DOERING: Oh, Bobby… that’s just heart breaking.

BASCOMB: Yeah, it really is. I mean if you or I lost our home tomorrow we both probably have family somewhere else that we could stay with. But when your entire family and basically everyone you know lives in the same complex, and it’s destroyed by a fire it leaves you essentially homeless with no one to turn to. Joel is working with the Oregon Relief Fund to provide some financial support, especially for undocumented immigrants who can’t access federal funds. But really it’s an untenable situation.

DOERING: Are they able to access homeless shelters at least?

BASCOMB: Well, yes and no. Many homeless shelters were already operating at reduced capacity because of the virus. Understandably, they didn’t want to pack too many people into a small space. So, the demand is high but availability is low and in many areas of the country that has meant more people, of all cultures not just immigrants, living on the street.

DOERING: So, what are cities doing to try to help or accommodate people that have been displaced?

BASCOMB: Well, I talked to Vivian Ho about that. She’s a staff writer for the Guardian and has written a lot on the issue of homelessness. She says that when Covid first hit and homeless numbers shot up, some cities like San Francisco set up outdoor encampments for the homeless. She visited one of the camps in the early days of the fires and described what it was like to spend time outside there.

HO: Just 10 minutes outside and it feels like you are choking. It sticks in your hair. It clings to you. Your lips are cracked, your skin is cracked. It's just the most awful, terrible sensation there is and to know that there are people out there sleeping in this because they don't have another choice. It's just heartbreaking. It's inhumane.

DOERING: Wow, Bobby, so how are people in these camps dealing with the terrible air quality if they can’t escape indoors?

BASCOMB: I put that question to Vivian and she basically said that many people she spoke to are just kind of resigned to it.

HO: If you talk to anybody else in California, it's all they can talk about the wildfire smoke and how much they hate it. But for people who are actually sleeping in it, who have ash pouring down on their heads, who are sweeping it off of their coolers, who are sweeping it off of their food, they just think it's another day because their conditions are already so bad that it's just one more thing to deal with.

BASCOMB: But Jenni, for people that are homeless and have underlying health concerns it’s a different story. For someone with pre-existing lung disease or asthma being outside right now can be a death sentence. Even for healthy people breathing in wildfire smoke day after day can cause headaches and sore throats in the near term and respiratory problems and cardio vascular concerns long term. And on the West Coast alone there are hundreds of thousands of people living without adequate housing. So Vivian says we are going to be looking at a lot of people with very serious health problems in the future as a result of being unsheltered now.

DOERING: I’m sure the cities and states are aware of the potential health problems for people living outside, authorities are advising people to avoid going outside as much as possible after all. So, what are cities doing to help people who can’t go inside?

BASCOMB: Well, it really depends. A lot of states and cities are understandably focused on controlling the fires and just barely keeping it together with that so helping the homeless community is kind of an afterthought in many cases. But a lot of non-profits are stepping in to sort of fill the void. I came across a small organization called Mask Sonoma. They began handing out N95 masks back in 2017 during that year’s devastating wildfires. They gave them to homeless people and vineyard workers who couldn’t go inside to escape the smoke.

DOERING: That sounds like some good foresight.

BASCOMB: Yes! I spoke with Miles Sarvis-Wilburn at Mask Sonoma and he made a really good point. You know, there are so many awful things happening today between the virus, wildfires, hurricanes, social unrest… it can all feel so disheartening and overwhelming but he says there is power in numbers when it comes to trying to help in some small way.

Mask Sonoma and other mutual aid organizations specifically cater to people experiencing homelessness and extreme poverty.

SARVIS- WILBURN: The main takeaway for me would be our collective strength as just people. Oftentimes we feel isolated, especially if we're quarantining. So we're at home, and we have the internet. So all we're doing is reading about everything bad that's happening and feeling well, I can't do very much about any of that. Well, what little, you know, mutual aid organizations like our show is that actually, you can do a ton. I feel like I'm really capable of doing my little bit and so that is one way to go forward in a time when, the situation is probably not going to ameliorate in the near future.

BASCOMB: And Jenni, Miles reminded me that where he lives in Sonoma, California the wildfire season doesn’t really start until October so the 2020 wildfire season is far from over. And of course with climate change creating hotter, drier conditions across much of the West scientists are telling us to expect more intense fires in the future.

DOERING: So, it sounds like the most vulnerable people in society are going to need more support going forward.

BASCOMB: Exactly.



The New York Times | “Wildfires Are Among 4 Recent Disasters Costing at Least $1 Billion”

The Guardian | “Homeless Californians Face New Crisis: Living Outside in Smoke-Filled Air”

Mask Sonoma’s Facebook Page

More on Causa


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