The Response podcast episode 3: The impact of Northern California fires on the undocumented community

The third episode of The Response travels to Northern California to provide a unique perspective on the topics of climate change and immigration. California's climate-fueled weather conditions have left the state in an extreme condition that has led to an unprecedented number of wildfires that are burning hotter, faster, and ever more acreage. The largest wildfire in the state's recorded history was the Mendocino Complex Fire, which scorched well over 400,000 acres during the summer of 2018. And the second largest fire in California burned just a year before that. As California Governor Jerry Brown says, "since civilization emerged 10,000 years ago, we haven't had this kind of heat condition, and it's going to continue getting worse."

We've already reached a one degree celsius increase in average global temperatures, and we may be on track for four by the end of the century. As the reality of an increasingly chaotic climate begins to settle in, it must be viewed through a lens of social, economic, and political circumstances as well. What does the growing threat of climate-fueled disasters mean for the most vulnerable among us?

In this episode, we put the focus on last year's Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, California — the state's most destructive fire to date — and how it impacted the undocumented community. We explore how, in the face of ICE raids, labor violations, a housing crisis, and climate-fueled wildfires, the broader community is coming together to stand in solidarity with those who are being forced into the shadows.

Episode Credits:

  • Senior producer, technical director, and designer: Robert Raymond
  • Field producers: Ninna Gaensler-Debbs and Robert Raymond
  • Host and executive producer: Tom Llewellyn
  • Voiceover and narration: Luisa Cardoza

Music by:

Header illustration by Kane Lynch

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For a full list of episodes, resources to cultivate resilience in your community, or to share your experiences of disaster collectivism, visit www.theresponsepodcast.org.

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure.

[Chanting from Rise for Climate Justice march]

Crowd: What do we want? Climate Justice! When do we want it? Now! [Repeats]

Tom Llewellyn: It's an unusually warm and sunny September day in San Francisco, and we're standing right in the middle of Market street, within a sea of banners, megaphones, drums, and about thirty-thousand people. It's the Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice march — the anchor event preceding a week of official climate talks hosted by California governor Jerry Brown.

Within this crowd, There are groups representing all sorts of causes, from trade unions, to buddhists, to indigenous folks, and many more. And their message is clear: an end to fossil fuel production and justice for those impacted disproportionately by the effects of climate change.

Well in this episode of The Response, we put the spotlight on an especially vulnerable community here in California: undocumented immigrants. We'll investigate how, in the face of ICE raids, labor violations, a housing crisis, and climate-fueled wildfires, the broader community is coming together to stand in solidarity with those who are being forced into the shadows. I'm your host, Tom Llewellyn.

Tom Llewellyn: Although still under investigation by CalFire, it’s likely, that at around 10pm on October 8th, 2017, power lines on Tubbs Lane in Calistoga, California, were downed by high winds. The live wires would have sent a shower of sparks through the air, thus starting the Tubbs Fire. Hurricane-force winds whipped the blaze southwest through the Mayacamas Mountains.

Fueled by this bone-dry landscape still recovering from a five year drought, it only took a few hours to reach the city limits of Santa Rosa, where, as the city slept, it jumped Highway 101 and continued its deadly march through the densely packed neighborhoods of Fountain Grove and Coffey Park.

Pastor Al: I was working in Healdsburg, I was coming back at eleven o'clock at night. And I came in, I just went right to bed. The kids were sleeping and I was sleeping and I was just tired. I just never thought that the fire would jump all those freeways.

Tom Llewellyn: This is Pastor Al. He was living in Coffey Park at the time of the fire. On his way home from work that night he saw an orange glow in the distance, but at that time it was still many miles away.

Pastor Al: A little bit after two o'clock, I heard the phone ringing. It was the police department saying, you know, "Get up and get out now." The smoke was so thick that night. And, you know, I was like, "Okay," I said, "We need to leave."

Tom Llewellyn: Fifteen people had already died as the fire made its way down from Calistoga, and Coffey Park was just one of a long list of neighborhoods put on a mandatory evacuation notice that night.

Pastor Al: I opened the door and I was shocked, you know, and the wind, and the fire was all over the place and that was it. Survival was the only thing that I had in my mind.

Tom Llewellyn: Al woke up his wife and kids, and they rushed to get out. The only thing he had time to grab was his daughter's asthma medication. As they made their way through the thick smoke and floating embers towards their car, he suddenly noticed that his wife was missing.

Pastor Al: And I started calling my wife, and then I heard my wife was knocking on one of our neighbors — he was about seventy-four, seventy-five. And all I remember, I heard my wife calling out, "Get up and get out!" And my wife went to four, five other houses she went to to knock on the doors. And I was like, "Man, get up and get out!" And so she came and we went.

Tom Llewellyn: As they scrambled through the smoke-laden streets, the houses around them were already starting to catch on fire. Eventually they made it out of the neighborhood, and headed south on Highway 101 where they ended up pulling into a Home Depot parking lot.

Pastor Al: So that's where we hunkered down for the night and, you know, we were just waiting there until we see what we can do the next morning.

Tom Llewellyn: Like many of the twenty-thousand undocumented people living in the area, Pastor Al and his family avoided going to official shelters. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and deportations are something that this community has to deal with on a daily basis, and the possibility of federal agents at shelters made them nervous. Many folks ended up just sleeping on the beach or in their cars.

When Pastor Al and his family were finally able to make it back to their house, everything was gone.

Pastor Al: You know, all of it. I mean there's nothing. We looked around, you know, we were shocked. I mean all you see there, you just stood there and cried. I mean, it's like, my goodness. Everything was burned to the ground. I mean the metal, it is unreal. And I think to us it was that my son came up and showed me this ceramic was given to us by a friend of ours. And the only thing the reading on ceramic was Luke: 137, that "Nothing is impossible with God." That was the only thing that survived the whole fire. I said, "This is the only thing that we're going to hang on to." And I guess that's part of our story. So I walked out, I said, "Okay, it's only thing I can hang on.” And that it was only thing that survived the fire. Everything else burnt.

Tom Llewellyn: The Tubbs Fire was the most destructive wildfire in California history. It burned almost 40,000 acres, taking the lives of 22 people along the way and incinerating almost 3,000 homes in Santa Rosa alone — five percent of the city's housing stock.

Historically, wildfire has always been a normal part of California's ecosystems. It clears out dead litter on the forest floor and plays an important part in helping certain plants reproduce themselves. But what's not normal are the climate-fueled extreme weather conditions that have lengthened the fire season and are leading to massive wildfires that threaten major urban centers and can take months to contain.

The largest wildfire in the state's recorded history was the Mendocino Complex Fire, which scorched well over 400,000 acres during the Summer of 2018 and was still not fully contained at the time of this recording. And the second largest fire in California history? Well, it burned just a year before that. Last year's Thomas Fire in Southern California blazed across almost 300,000 acres. So, as you can see, there's a disturbing trend. This is California Governor Jerry Brown.

California Governor Jerry Brown: We're being surprised. Every year is teaching the fire authorities new lessons. We're in uncharted territory. Since civilization emerged 10,000 years ago, we haven't had this kind of heat condition, and it's going to continue getting worse. I mean, that's the way it is... We're in for a really rough ride.

Tom Llewellyn: We've already reached a one degree celsius increase in average global temperatures, and we may be on track for four by the end of the century. As the reality of an increasingly chaotic climate begins to settle in, it must be viewed through a lens of social, economic, and political circumstances as well.

What does the growing threat of climate-fueled disasters mean for the most vulnerable among us? Here's Irma Garcia, who, like Al, is an undocumented immigrant, and was also living in Coffey Park at the time of the fire.

Irma Garcia: We were asleep during the fires. We were asleep when my neighbor came and knocked on the door at three in the morning and told us there was a fire. We got up and just grabbed the basics and went to the veterans building.

Tom Llewellyn: The Santa Rosa Veterans building had been set up as an official shelter. When Irma and her family arrived, they quickly noticed that the whole system was a mess. They tried to offer their help, but the Red Cross staff brushed them aside. Still, they couldn't just sit idly by. And so, despite everything that they were going through, they found ways to to make themselves useful. But even as they were helping to set up beds and clear out debris, they felt unwelcome. The Red Cross staff had begun ordering Irma around in a way that made her feel uncomfortable, and one of them actually yelled at her five year old daughter for being in one of the beds that Irma had helped to set up.

Irma Garcia: My daughter was 5 years old and she hadn't slept, and she had behaved very well, so I told her to rest in a bed, and I said to the lady from the Red Cross, "Please do not talk to my daughter like that." And she said again, "Get out of the bed and get out of here." And then my husband said, "We're leaving. We're better off outside than here."

So we left, and we were going to spend the night in our car because it was so sad to see what was going on in the shelter. And as I was leaving the building, we looked around and I realized that there were no immigrants, and that there were only Americans. There were just a few immigrants, but they were outside or in the corner. That was when I realized that our immigrant community was suffering a lot during this disaster. And to this day they're still suffering.

Tom Llewellyn: The disrespect and hostility that Irma and her family were subjected to at the shelter was one of the most traumatic parts of their experience with the fire — particularly for her daughter. And though their house was spared by the flames, the hardships were really just getting started.

Irma Garcia: The fires had a big effect on us because we couldn't work for three weeks. Imagine, three weeks without working. So we fell behind on our bills and on rent because rent is so high. And then, on top of that, we had to deal with the fear of ICE and that we wouldn't be able to work or that if we did go to work, they'd show up and take us away.

Mara Ventura: The number one way that we saw undocumented folks impacted was actually through loss of wages.

Tom Llewellyn: Here's Mara Ventura, the executive director of North Bay Jobs with Justice  — a community and labor coalition based out of Santa Rosa.

Mara Ventura: Either of their works burned down, or their works closed down because their bosses lost their homes or their bosses had to evacuate. And so, to give a brief picture for folks in other parts of the country, the main two neighborhoods that we really want to focus on when we're talking about these fires is Coffey Park, which is a mostly residential area and home to mostly middle class families, but also were homes where two to three different undocumented families were sharing one home.

And then we also had another area, which is the area called Fountain Grove which was home to a lot of mansions. We're talking multimillion dollar homes. And so there's quite a differential in terms of the experience of the families, the income levels and so forth of the folks in between those areas. But in the places where undocumented families were impacted they either were losing their homes in Coffey Park or they were losing the places where they had more stable work up in the Fountain Grove area where many undocumented folks were doing landscaping work, were doing pool maintenance, were doing house cleaning, were doing domestic care, et cetera.

Tom Llewellyn: Unlike most people affected by the fire, the undocumented community had no access to federal relief funding to help offset any of their losses. They were largely on their own. Or, they would have been, if it wasn't for a rapid grassroots mobilization coordinated by local organizations and activists.

Tom Llewellyn: We're at the Santa Rosa Community College, where hundreds of volunteers and undocumented families have gathered as part of an application process for what is known as Undocufund.

Omar Medina: My name is Omar Medina and currently I am the coordinator for Undocufund. Undocufund arose out of the Northern California wildfires. It was a combination of three organizations that came together to address the issue of recovery for undocumented families that would not be eligible for a lot of the aid that was going to come out for the disaster. So we knew there was going to be a void and we decided that something needed to happen to help those families. And so Undocufund was developed to raise funds to help provide financial assistance.

Tom Llewellyn: Certain public services were available to undocumented families, but there was a lot of fear around actually accessing those services. For example, undocumented immigrants with naturalized children are eligible for federal relief funding — but many felt uneasy navigating the process or were just outright afraid.

The coordinators of Undocufund knew it would take a lot of grassroots organizing to build trust and to spread awareness for their relief fund. It helped that the three organizations involved — North Bay Jobs with Justice, the Graton Day Labor Center, and the North Bay Organizing Project — were already known by much of the immigrant community for their advocacy work. Here's Irma again — she actually works with the North Bay Organizing Project and the North Bay Rapid Response Network, which tracks and monitors ICE raids.

Irma Garcia: We learned all about the experiences of people in our community during the fires, and realized that many undocumented immigrants were sleeping in their cars or were going to the beach at Bodega Bay because they didn't feel safe in any of the shelters. They didn't provide any help for us, and we didn't trust anyone. We didn't trust the law, much less in the police or the sheriff. And we didn't trust FEMA because FEMA is very discriminatory.

So we went to seek out stories, and as we learned about the experiences of people in our community, we began to spread the word. We realized that our people were suffering a lot — and our children too. So that's how Undocufund got started with Omar Medina — he was the one who helped a lot with all this, along with the rest of the community. They started fundraising, donating, and doing events. It helped a lot of people.

But many people didn't trust it at first. It's difficult to give your information when everything is connected to everything else, so the last thing we wanted to do was to give out our information, to keep ICE far away from us.

Tom Llewellyn: This fear was also present for Pastor Al. At first, he'd avoided applying for Undocufund as well.

Pastor Al: We were just worried about who's going to be controlling that information? If we're going to put our names out there, you know, where is it going to go? That's the other side of it, that I kind of of withheld this whole idea of going to them. I just didn't know what, you know, I know it's undocumented fund but I just thought, you know, how are these things going to work out? Who's handling your information?

Tom Llewellyn: But eventually, Al and has family applied. And so did almost 2,000 other families. Here’s Mara Ventura again.

Mara Ventura: We recognized that undocumented families automatically had less access to many different social services, but particularly ones that were set up to help families recover during times of natural disasters. And so we wanted to ensure that there were funds available for them. And we wanted to ensure that they were unrestricted funds. That people could use them for whatever they needed them for and that there was a sense of ownership and autonomy that families could decide for themselves what they needed, and we would have a process that helped them think through all the different needs that they had — both before the fires and during the fires.

And so we brought I think a very unique perspective to putting a fire relief fund together, one in which we thought about what were different systematic, operational pieces we needed to have in the fund to ensure that it was accessible and equitable and truly reached undocumented communities where they were at. But also from the get go have been thinking about not just the immediate needs but also the intermediate and long term needs.

And as we were going through the process of helping families get aid from the fire fund, incorporated in our conversations an understanding of what was happening in people's lives. So an example of that is that we really tried to ensure that as people came and applied for aid they didn't feel like they were at an agency filling out a bureaucratic application. So we wanted an application process where folks came in and sat down with a trained volunteer and just started off with a conversation. Really ensuring right away, our job is to be here to help you get as much aid as you can get for the things that you need. And tell me a little bit about what happened during the fires and and really thinking about questions that also got at the systems that they were up against.

So really trying to understand like what systematic barriers were people facing even in the moment. Because it's not something that you you're always thinking about when you're in the moment of a natural disaster and you're in a high anxiety, high stress mode. So I think being social justice organizations we brought that really unique experience to creating this Fire Relief Fund where we tried to identify systems.

Pastor Al: We were very grateful for the help — the help that helps my family especially get situated, the food, the clothing, and that part of, we were very grateful for the of the fund that was given to us. I think what I discovered is that in these kind of situations it's nice to have a place where you can go and just, you could hear others. And by talking about I think it's so therapeutic. It's so healing when people can understand and then listen to your stories and even just, you know, that you can express your emotions, your feelings. I think it does something to all of us.

Tom Llewellyn: With donations coming from over eight thousand individuals, Undocufund was a powerful demonstration of solidarity in action. In the beginning they thought they'd raise maybe fifty, or a hundred-thousand dollars, if they were lucky.

Omar Medina: Never did we expect the six million we've raised so far. But the generosity of people as the disasters were happening, as the fires kept going, and the media kept covering it, and people learned about us, and they sympathized with the need. They understand the need based on everything that we've experienced lately, you know, on a national level as it relates to the undocumented community. And the generosity of people came in. And so that gave us the opportunity to help a lot more people.

Irma Garcia: Undocufund definitely did unite the community, because, as an undocumented immigrant, you realize that the police, the sheriff, the system — everything — we're outside of that. We're totally excluded. But when Undocufund started and we saw so many people helping from all kinds of different places, we realized that although we’re outside the system, we’re not outside the community. And that the community supports us. We know now that at least we are not alone.

Tom Llewellyn: Like we learned in our previous two episodes on Hurricanes Maria and Sandy, when disasters strike in vulnerable communities, they tend to merely intensify issues that are already happening. For example, the loss in wages that resulted from the Tubbs Fire was a serious challenge to many in the undocumented community — but the truth is that their wages before the fire were already almost impossible to live off of in the Bay Area. Not to mention ongoing labor violations, sexual harassment and assault, and a housing crisis that was only exacerbated by the fire. Here's Davin Cardenas, the co-director of the North Bay Organizing Project. He's learned a lot more about these struggles during the time he spent coordinating Undocufund.

Davin Cardenas: You get your finger on the pulse of what's happening with the immigrant community in terms of wages, living conditions, needs. And so it was really an experience of having your eyes open a little bit more. You know, I'd be in an interview one after the other after the other, speaking with local immigrant workers — women especially — who were being paid like ten dollars an hour for house cleaning jobs and that's you know that's below the minimum wage. And as an housecleaning is rigorous — it's a very difficult job to do and it taxes your body. And so I think that being what it felt like was the norm — was severely underpaid workers working extremely hard to make our county beautiful. And so, for me, you know, we know some of these things but it's also a stark reminder of the economic conditions that people are living in and trying to raise babies and trying to raise families here in the North Bay.

Tom Llewellyn: Because of these chronic struggles, the Undocufund coordinators didn't want to focus their efforts only on immediate fire relief.

Davin Cardenas: I think the Undocufund becomes another space where we can talk about greater systemic issues. The fact that immigrants are subsidizing the way we live. They're subsidizing the standard of living in Sonoma County. This is the wine country, and when people think about the wine country they think about kind of the iconic vineyard landscape. But we think about the workers who put the wine country on the map and the taxation that comes with the physical labor — the tax on your body, the tax on the land, the pesticides that are being pushed into our waterways and our rivers — those things are also an inherent part of what we call the wine country.

And so I think with the Undocufund it's an opportunity to start talking about equity amongst working people, talk about new voices and the people who make this county actually function and flourish. And it's an opportunity for workers to start having their voices heard on a broader scale. Not only through the Undocufund, but immigrant workers have also been putting proposals to the county supervisors about what disaster preparedness should look like for Spanish-speaking peoples in the county. And, I think, also immigrants are stepping in to talk about just the anxiety that comes with the federal immigration situation, the Immigrant and Customs Enforcement. So they're finding new ways to communicate. And part of the Undocufund infrastructure is also to make sure we're developing relationships and beginning to heighten the voices of workers in all of these issues.

Mara Ventura: Undocufund folks we're now continuing to have this conversation of what really fueled this this outpouring of support and how do we capture it? How do we use it to enable and continue to empower undocumented community members here to really say, like, people from not just Sonoma County, not just California — we received donations from all over the country — folks all around the country are concerned about your livelihood, and your ability to stay in this community, and not continue to worry about the displacement and the lack of services and the lack of the ability to stay in your homes and all these things that you're already facing.

They're investing in you and they care about you. And how do we sort of capture that and empower them to also figure out what are other systematic changes that need to be made here in our community to ensure that they don't just have money today to pay their rent but that there are systems that we're changing that enable undocumented folks to make a living and to have livable wages, and health benefits, and all the things they need to continue to live here.

Tom Llewellyn: Organizers have launched a series of people's assemblies and listening circles with Undocufund recipients to learn more about the challenges they’re facing and the kinds of changes they’d like to see.

Mara Ventura: That's really the next step in thinking about our resiliency is that undocumented people are leading and making the decisions for the solutions they want to see, that they're getting the skills and the training they need to help see through the solutions that they want to build, that their voices are the decision-makers, that we're actually changing systems — or building new systems — to address long term needs. And really trying to recapture going back to folks that came together for them during the recovery and during the fires and saying, "Here's a more long term way that you can invest in our undocumented community and hopefully build a model for folks to then do that for their own communities and for undocumented people in their own neighborhoods."

Pastor Al: What happened was just the incredible sense of people, just the people wanting to help out. I think that's one of the things that I was so blown away. That people were basically saying, "What can I do to help you in your situation?" The amount of help, the amount of willingness — the heart was so open. That’s one of the things that I was so blown away.

Tom Llewellyn: This episode was written, produced, and edited by Robert Raymond. Interviews were recorded and conducted by our field producer Ninna Gaensler-Debbs and Robert Raymond. A big thanks to Chris Zabriskie and Lanterns for the music.

That's it for the first season of The Response, we'll see you again in 2019. Until then, be sure to subscribe on the podcast app of your choice in order to receive additional interviews and other bonus material.

This season of The Response is part of the "Stories to Action" project, a collaboration between ShareablePost Carbon InstituteTransition USUpstream Podcast, and NewStories, with distribution support from Making Contact. Funding was provided by the Threshold and Shift Foundations.

If you liked what you just heard, please head over to Apple Podcasts and leave us. It might not sound like much, but it'll make a huge difference in helping others hear this story.

If you've been inspired by the themes and stories we've shared in this season of The Response, are interested in exploring how you can cultivate resilience in your own community, or would like to share your experiences of disaster collectivism, head on over to TheResonsePodcast.org. We wanna hear from you.

With an uncertain future ahead marked by deepening divisions and climate change, the many examples of collective relief and recovery efforts can serve as a blueprint for how to move forward and rebuild with a radical resilience. They can also provide a glimpse of another world, one marked by empowered communities filled with more connection, purpose, and meaning.

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