Farmland wildfire smoke
(Photo credit: Wonderlane / Flickr)

In mid-September, farmworkers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley watched the skies turn red: Wildfires were burning closer.

“People were scared. They had a lot of questions,” says Reyna Lopez of PCUN, a union of Latinx workers. She says people were worried about going out in the fields because of the smoke.

The state urged employers to stop outdoor work. But many farms kept operating because the crops were ripe, so many workers showed up.

“Some of them don’t want to miss work because … a lot of times folks are heads of households, single moms, and they’re holding it down for their families, right?” Lopez says. “So even missing one day, two days … after things got shut down with COVID, that’s devastating for families who are really struggling to make ends meet.”

When the state issued evacuation orders in some areas, not everyone got the message. Some people lacked internet access or could not understand the language spoken on the radio.

So Lopez says that as wildfires become more extreme, more needs to be done to protect workers.

She advocates for better protective gear, more culturally appropriate communication, and policies that make it easier for people to stay home when conditions are too dangerous to be outside.

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Reporting credit: Stephanie Manuzak/ChavoBart Digital Media.

Topics: Jobs & Economy