Community Resilience in the Thomas Fire


The Thomas Fire that struck Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties in December of 2017 was at the time the largest wildfire in California history, and was followed by a deadly mudslide when rains washed down the burnt hillsides. Drought and climate change have made wildfires in California larger, more frequent, and more destructive. While most media attention focuses on expensive hillside properties burning, the effects on immigrant families and low-wage workers are devastating but often unseen. CAUSE worked alongside our partners, the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) and Future Leaders of America (FLA) to respond where our communities were being left behind by the official disaster response.

One in three residents of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties speaks Spanish at home, but Spanish speaking residents lacked critical information during the disasters as emergency warnings were at first only available in English and then poorly made available via Google Translate. This emergency information included evacuation areas and shelters, road closures and school closures. It also included health and safety information about lack of safe drinking water in some neighborhoods and how to boil tap water to kill bacteria before drinking or cooking, and the need for N95 respirator masks to protect yourself from unsafe air quality. This lead to fear and confusion as immigrant families struggled to keep their loved ones safe without access to information in an emergency. Together we advocated for translated information during the disaster, as well as systemic change in the aftermath. Both Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties hired Spanish-speaking Public Information Officers. Local Assemblymember Monique Limon authored AB 1877, holding counties accountable for translating emergency information into the most commonly spoken language other than English in that county.

Farmworkers were hit especially hard by the disaster. Heavy smoke from the fires filled the air for weeks, creating unsafe conditions for outdoor workers, especially those doing hard manual labor and breathing in deeply. Public health officials recommended wearing N95 respirator masks for the general public even to take a simple trip outside to the store. Yet as agricultural companies rushed to harvest their crops to keep them safe from falling ash, thousands of workers worked in the fields. At first, the vast majority of farmworkers did not have protective masks, causing effects like coughing, headaches, and difficulty breathing, and risking long-term health impacts like respiratory illness and cancer. CAUSE, MICOP, and FLA volunteers distributed over 15,000 N95 masks to farmworkers in the fields and in neighborhoods and worked to raise awareness of the issue. Meanwhile, CalOSHA, the agency tasked with protecting the health and safety of all workers in California, had closed their local offices for the week, only reopening under immense public pressure. In the aftermath of the disaster, we advocated for change in workplace safety standards, with California state regulators developing the nation's first enforceable workplace safety standards for wildfires, requiring outdoor employers to provide respirator masks when air quality is measured to be harmful.

Meanwhile, thousands of low-wage immigrant workers were impacted by the disaster but excluded from relief due to their immigration status. Farmworkers lost weeks of work as agricultural companies shut down due to the smoke and sometimes lost their homes in trailers that burned down. Housekeepers, gardeners and other domestic workers who work in homes that were evacuated or destroyed in affluent communities like Montecito often lost their jobs permanently. Hospitality workers who clean hotel rooms and cook and wash dishes in restaurant kitchens lost work from a near total shutdown of tourism during the disaster. A majority of workers in these most heavily impacted industries are undocumented, excluding them from federal aid like FEMA and disaster unemployment assistance. Many families already live paycheck to paycheck and had nowhere to turn for help. Together we established the 805 UndocuFund, which raised over $2 million to serve over 1,400 undocumented immigrants and mixed status families who lost their homes, wages, and/or employment due to natural disasters. Hundreds of volunteers assisted in clinics to interview impacted families and process applications. The 805 Undocufund remains open and also served workers hit by the Woolsey Fire the following year.

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The disaster also impacted housing and transportation for working families. With the 101 closed for weeks, thousands of people who commute to jobs in Santa Barbara from more affordable Ventura County were cut off from work, with some forced to take extreme measures like driving around the mountains through the Central Valley or getting on boats leaving from the harbor, and others losing work entirely. The sudden loss of housing stock meant less vacancies available and higher-income families moving into rental housing while their houses were rebuilt. Some landlords skirted state rent-gouging protections, like the Voluntario Apartments, which raised rents by 40% on tenants in the Eastside of Santa Barbara.

CAUSE and our partners worked to draw attention to the impacts on immigrant and working-class families and shape climate change adaptation policies to include the needs of our communities, from the California Adaptation Forum to Yale University. Governor Newsom allocated $50 million in grants towards disaster preparedness and response for vulnerable and marginalized communities. We also co-sponsored legislation, SB 160, with our state senator Hannah-Beth Jackson to require cultural competency and community engagement in local disaster planning to ensure all communities are at the table in preparing for the next wildfire.

We continue to raise the importance of climate resilience measures not just focusing on property protection but also protecting the economic security of workers and the public health of our communities. To achieve this, we need to go beyond relying solely on technical and scientific planning but uplifting the lived experiences of our communities to understanding the complex web of impacts of climate disruption, and how it worsens existing inequalities for the most marginalized people.