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Farm Workers In Wildfire Areas Aren't Always Aware Of Evacuation Plans


Thousands of farm workers living in wildfire country in the Pacific Northwest have a particular vulnerability in times of emergency. Many are Spanish-speaking and emergency warnings in Spanish don't always reach those who need to hear them. Northwest Public Radio's Rowan Moore Gerety reports.

ROWAN MOORE GERETY, BYLINE: As high winds continued to fan a wildfire near Omak, Wash., Martin De La Rosa and his co-workers got the day off from picking apples because of the smoke. But they didn't get any information about the fire until it was dangerously close to the orchard where they lived. When the foreman came to see them...

MARTIN DE LA ROSA: (Through interpreter) We were seeing smoke and planes were out spraying retardant.

GERETY: De La Rosa says the foremen offered no information about escape routes or evacuation shelters, nothing about who to call or where to go.

DE LA ROSA: (Through interpreter) Nobody said anything - just that there was a fire, nothing else.

GERETY: Like many other migrant workers De La Rosa has no car of his own so he and thousands of others living in farm labor camps in eastern Washington need help to get out in an emergency. To be clear, De La Rosa does think his employer or other workers would help him evacuate if need be, but he doesn't have much information to go on.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: So those living at the Masden Creek Community in Ferry County are under level three and must evacuate immediately.

GERETY: Warnings like that go out periodically on English-language radio, but the only Spanish signal that reaches De La Rosa's cabin is a faint music station. This year, emergency managers in Okanogan County are scrambling to put better alert systems in place for Spanish-speaking residents.

ANGELA SEYDEL: We definitely have seen the need and are aware of it.

GERETY: Angela Seydel is a spokesperson with the Incident Management Team.

SEYDEL: It is purely a manpower issue. Resources are limited.

GERETY: A Spanish-language hotline and Facebook page launched only after fires had destroyed a number of homes in the area. But even 24 hours later, none of the half-dozen farm workers I spoke to were aware of either resource.

MICHELLE BESSO: Right now, it's completely haphazard.

GERETY: Michelle Besso is an attorney in the farm worker unit of Northwest Justice Project. She says the current system for evacuation plans is inadequate.

BESSO: It depends on the individual grower whether they have some kind of plan like that or whether they have no plan at all.

GERETY: Last year what was then the largest wildfire in state history whipped through the same region. As Besso points out, it destroyed all the migrant housing at King Blossom Orchards in nearby Brewster.

BESSO: The workers in Brewster last year only escaped because somebody woke up at the last minute, and they were able to get out.

GERETY: The president of the company that manages that orchard, Tim McLaughlin, disputes that account. He says foremen told workers they might need to evacuate with about three hours to spare, but that some workers chose go back to sleep. Nonetheless, McLaughlin says it was a wake-up call.

TIM MCLAUGHLIN: We've experienced it once. God forbid that'd happen again. We'll be better prepared this next time.

GERETY: Those preparations include early notice of evacuations and going over an escape plan with employees early in the season. Tougher regulations from the State Department of Health are on the way, too, like requirements for smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in all migrant housing. Online, the agency keeps a list of every migrant labor camp in the state, but it's yet to share that list with local emergency responders. With smoke still in the air, farm workers like Martin De La Rosa are returning to work.

DE LA ROSA: (Through interpreter) Honestly, I don't have a good sense of the danger because I don't have any information. I just know the mountains are burning.

GERETY: De La Rosa says he doesn't know how worried he should be. For NPR News, I'm Rowan Moore Gerety in Yakima, Wash. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.