Latino workers flee California wine
country fires for shelters, beaches
Send a link to a friend
[October 16, 2017]
By Noel Randewich and Peter Henderson
PETALUMA, Calif./SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) -
At the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds north of San Francisco, Spanish is the
language that dominates many conversations about shelters, work and how
to survive the California wine country wildfires, one of the deadliest
fire events to strike the Golden State.
The workers that tend vines, ferment wine, build homes and feed tourists
in world-famous Napa and Sonoma counties are heavily Latino; Latinos
count for more than a quarter of Sonoma's population.
They also are among the worst hit by the fires that have killed more
than 30 people, scorched over 190,000 acres (77,000 hectares) and
destroyed more than a dozen wineries.
Flames bore down on a vineyard where Sofia Rivera, 50, was picking
grapes at about 2 a.m. on Monday. She sped home, grabbed her five kids,
and fled. On Friday, she piled donated diapers onto a stroller at the
fairgrounds shelter in Petaluma, calculating her money will last only a
"There's no work, and we don't know if there will be work," said Rivera,
a widow and native of Michoacan, Mexico.
The Latino population of Sonoma and Napa counties grew by more than 60
percent each between 2000 and 2015, outpacing a 38 percent growth in the
Bay Area as a whole, according to U.S. Census data provided by Sonoma
County. And it still is rising.
Many of those are workers who have come to the country illegally and are
particularly vulnerable now, said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda
Hopkins. Her district includes some wine-making country and the Sonoma
coast, whose beaches have been claimed by evacuees, including immigrants
who feared immigration authorities would target them at shelters, she
"What we saw in my district was a huge flood of Latino evacuees to the
coast," she said. "Folks just went right past those shelters and they
tried to get, I think, as far away from the fire as possible, but also
beyond institutional help, on purpose.”
[to top of second column]
Volunteers and evacuees who work in the region's tourism and wine
industries, sift through clothing at a shelter in Petaluma,
California, U.S., October 13, 2017. REUTERS/Noel Randewich
The less affluent would be hardest hit as wine country rebuilds,
with owners of destroyed homes and an influx of construction workers
competing for temporary housing and driving up prices, she said.
"We already had completely unaffordable housing costs for both
rental and purchases, and those are only going to increase in the
wake of this disaster,” Hopkins said. Some mobile homes were listed
for sale in Santa Rosa for more than $150,000.
County officials have put out the word that immigration officials
will not be chasing evacuees, but there is a clear sense of fear,
said Ana Lugo, president of the North Bay Organizing Project. The
group is organizing a fund for those evacuees in the country
illegally, who are not likely to get federal aid.
She also is concerned that affluent communities burned down by the
fire may get more local help than those less well off, a tale of two
cities that Supervisor Hopkins hopes to avoid.
Armando Flores is likely to be one of those swinging hammers in the
rebuilding of homes and entire communities.
A carpenter who came to California from Mexico four decades ago at
the age of 16, and now a U.S. citizen, Flores left his valuable
tools at a house he was working on. He fled to a shelter after
getting a text message alert on Wednesday night.
He fears those tools may have been lost to flames. "But I left
Mexico with nothing," he said. "And I can start again with nothing."
(Editing by Mary Milliken)
[© 2017 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2017 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.