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Northern California Wildfires Spared Vineyards But Left Some Workers Homeless

Winery owners are organizing to help agricultural workers find housing

A 34-year-old vineyard worker left behind everything when he fled the flames that consumed his apartment in Santa Rosa, California, last month.

With no warning of the approaching blaze, the man — who has picked grapes for 15 years and who asked that his full name not be used — only had time to grab his wallet before driving his wife, her son and her granddaughter to safety at 1 a.m.

Afterward, a friend offered the family a room short-term, but now the man worries about where they will go and how they will pay for it. 

Vineyards across California’s wine country mostly were spared when the fires raced through at the beginning of October, but that's not the case with many of the agricultural workers. They have lost homes and what possessions they had and in some cases, because they are undocumented, they are ineligible for federal assistance.

About 10 of the more than 1,200 wineries in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties were devastated, but the majority reopened quickly once the fires passed through. Now, they are appealing to people to help the recovery by visiting, said Gladys Horiuchi, spokeswoman for the Wine Institute of California. The organization is donating money from its tastings and sales to fire victims, and has created funds targeted directly to workers displaced by the fires.

“The main concern for the industry is trying to get these people some place to live,” Horiuchi said.

The fires that broke out Oct. 8 killed 42 people, damaged or destroyed more than 14,000 homes and 4,000 commercial buildings, and caused more than $3.3 billion in covered losses, the state Department of Insurance reported at the end of the month.

California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones has warned that it could be months before there was a final tally of losses and Moody’s Investors Service says it could be more than $4.6 billion.

Sonoma County suffered among the worst damage. In the county’s largest city, Santa Rosa, the Coffey Park and Fountaingrove neighborhoods and the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park were reduced to charred rubble.

A housing recovery fund established by the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau hopes to find temporary quarters for all of the displaced agricultural workers. It has raised $445,000 so far and has identified 21 agricultural workers and their families who lost their homes, said Karissa Kruse, the foundation's president.

“However, we believe that there are still more families who we have not connected with, so we are updating our information and putting together a flyer in both English and Spanish that our (agricultural) employers can distribute,” she said.

The foundation’s board will meet in the last week of November to approve the first phase of the distribution of funds. The plan is to provide rent, utilities and basic household items for families displaced by the fires, and gift cards to agricultural employees who were evacuated and lost food and wages for a few days during the fires, according to Kruse.

The group is trying to be innovative, and had investigated whether it could buy trailers, park them on vineyards and connect them to sewers and water. But in the meantime, it has found some apartments through Burbank Housing, a local non-profit dedicated to affordable housing, Kruse said.

Sonoma County’s wine industry employs 5,186 full-time workers and 2,644 seasonal workers, according to a survey done this year by the Sonoma County Winegrowers, which Kruse also heads. The hourly wage for vineyard employees is $16.34 and more than 29 percent of the grape growers offer housing to their employees, providing more than 950 beds.

In Napa County, the Napa Valley Community Foundation activated a disaster relief fund that was established in 2014 in response to the South Napa Earthquake. Since the fires it has raised $7 million and is making cash available to low-to-moderate-income workers who need help paying rent or security deposits, utility and phone bills, auto loans, childcare or healthcare expenditures.

The emergency financial assistance is being allocated through three family resource centers, non-profit organizations in the community that agriculture workers already turn to. The centers are well connected with the mostly Mexican immigrant population that works in agriculture and in the restaurants, kitchens and hotels in Napa County, said the foundation’s president, Terence Mulligan.

“Because let’s face it, even before the fires these are folks who are typically struggling to cover the astronomical cost of housing and to build a brighter future for their kids,” Mulligan said.

By the end of October, the foundation had approved distributions totaling $3 million to help workers facing hardship because of the economic slowdown resulting from the fires. Since then, the family resource centers report that about 500 people have sought the emergency funds, up to 75 percent of them agricultural workers and the remainder from the hospitality industry. Some 40 to 60 people were renting homes that were among those that burned.

Napa has 7,000 to 8,000 people working in agriculture, only about 800 to 1,000 of whom leave to pick crops elsewhere. The vast majority now live in the area year round, on a vineyard’s payroll or working in construction or other industries during the winter months.

Napa had already set up farmworker housing centers that offer lodging, meals and laundry, and are financed through an assessment on growers, according to the Napa Vintners.

Even before the fires, the North Bay had a severe housing crunch, with the rental vacant rate at only 1 percent in Santa Rosa and 3 percent in Sonoma County as a whole. Since then, Santa Rosa lost 3,000 homes or 5 percent of its housing.

With thousands of families needing a place to live, median monthly rents jumped in mid-October compared to the month before — by 36 percent to $3,224 in Sonoma County and by 23 percent to $3,094 in Napa, according to an analysis by Zillow, the online real estate website. New listings appearing on Zillow may have formerly been vacation homes being offered for rent because of the sudden demand, but Aaron Terrazas, a senior economist with Zillow, cautioned that it was premature to draw any final conclusions about the size of the increase.

The housing market is in flux, and California law prohibits price increases on rental market during a state emergency by more than 10 percent.

“It’s a very expensive part of the world to live in anyway and so I think the people at the low end, whether they’re hired farm workers or construction workers or retail workers, it will be tough for them,” said Dan Sumner, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis, and its Agricultural Issues Center. “It already is.”

Sumner said even farm workers whose homes did not burn will end up paying higher rents because supply is so tight that prices will be pushed up. Construction will be focused on rebuilding neighborhoods that were damaged and destroyed, not adding new housing.

“If you lost your house, that’s an absolute tragedy, but even the hired farm worker that didn’t necessarily get burned out will have to pay higher rents probably and that will really be a burden on them,” Sumner said.

Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties are responsible for 12 percent of the wine produced in the state, according to the Wine Institute. Ninety percent of grapes in Napa and Sonoma and 75 percent in Mendocino had already been harvested before the fires started and the grapes that remained were mostly the tougher skinned Cabernet Sauvignon that are given the longest time on the vines.

“Those are the most valuable grapes in the United States,” Sumner said. “Per ton, they’re off the scale relative to other ones.”

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Fresno County bring $400 a ton compared to $8,000 ton for these grapes. “It’s the difference between the wine you drink and the wine you wish you could afford to drink,” he said.

Many farm workers are undocumented or have relatives who are and are distrustful of government agencies, Sumner said. They might know that assistance is available but be reluctant to seek it despite assurances that there are no ties to U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, given stepped up enforcement of immigration.

“In their personal experience, they haven’t made much use of government services and so the idea that the government is providing a lot of services, they may well think it’s not for them,” he said.

Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for disaster unemployment assistance or cash assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but they may be eligible for programs run by state and local agencies, and can apply for federal assistance on behalf of children under 18 who were born in the United States. They do not have to provide information on their own immigration status, according to FEMA, which urges them to call to be referred to other programs that can assist them.

A majority of the vineyard workers now in the area have been in the country for several years, Sumner said, unlike 10 to 20 years ago, when this might have been their first or second season in California. The economy of northern Mexico has done reasonably well over the last decade compared to the United States and there has been little migration, he said.

In fact, before the fires, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat had written of vineyard owners who were worried about a dearth of labor and hiring foreign workers through the federal H-2A visa program. Agricultural employers are permitted to hire full-time seasonal workers for an annual growing cycle, normally lasting up to 10 months, a program that President Donald Trump’s son, Eric, has taken advantage of for the Trump Vineyard Estates in Virginia.

The vineyard worker who lost his apartment in Santa Rosa was with his family and four acquaintances who lived with them when the fires began. At first, he did not realize what was happening, he said. There was a lot of noise outside, and when he looked out the window of the second-floor apartment, he saw what he thought was fog, but what was actually smoke and ashes.

By the time they left, the fire was closing in. 

"It’s very difficult. We’re starting over from scratch," the man said.

-- Estefania Hernandez and Maria Chamberlain contributed to this article.

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