Fire-Evacuated Farmworkers Slept In A Brewster Park As The Pearl Hill Fire Burned

Sep 18, 2020

When fast-moving fires spread through Washington's Okanogan and Douglas counties over Labor Day weekend, the flames threatened the town of Bridgeport, forcing more than 200 farmworkers to spend a night sleeping outside in a city park in nearby Brewster. 

Paula Soto, whose family lives in Bridgeport, says many were not prepared for a wildfire.

“These families are of low income,” Soto says. “Most of them that were affected, it was their trailers that were burned. And most did not have insurance in their houses. They really have to start from zero.”

Nearly 20 homes burned. Soto has gathered donations and supplies to help families who evacuated to hotel shelters.

Among those forced to evacuate were hundreds of farmworkers in company housing — mostly foreign H-2A guest workers, but also some migrant farmworker families. 

According to community members in Bridgeport and Brewster, and farmworkers who spoke on the condition of anonymity, orchard supervisors told workers they needed to evacuate with little to no warning. Workers said they were told to grab their documents and quickly board company buses.

Then, they were taken to a city park in Brewster, across the Columbia River. 

Sandra Zamudio drove by on her way to her father’s house.

“You saw people outside with baby carriages and you were just thinking oh my gosh, they’re going to have to sleep in their cars,” Zamudio says.

Workers who didn’t have their own cars slept in company buses and outside in the park. Without blankets, those who couldn’t stand the cold slept in a public restroom.

Zamudio and community members launched into action to help. Farmworkers gathered to collect blankets and food, but there weren’t enough supplies to go around that night. 

“They were cold and they were going like, ‘oiga, no tiene otra?,” Zamudio says. “For the people who didn’t get a blanket, they brought them back arroz con leche or warm beans. My mom is like, para que tengan algo caliente en su panza siquiera.”

But the principal question on volunteers’ minds was, where can we house all these people?

Most of the farmworkers were moved to alternative company-provided housing the next day. But 91 workers — employees of Highland Orchards — were not. Instead, they stayed at a Red Cross shelter at Brewster High School.  

Residents and farmworkers around Bridgeport (lower center) evacuated to Brewster (upper right) as the Pearl Hill Fire swept through the Douglas County area on the south side of the Columbia River. Across the river, the Cold Springs Fire also burned in Okanogan County.
Credit ArcGIS Wildfire Map / Screenshot

Betsy Robertson is a spokesperson for the regional American Red Cross. She says that initially the relief agency tried to secure shelter in hotels in Wenatchee and Omak because congregate shelters are a measure of last resort due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But fires in the region prevented access to these shelters. U.S. Route 97 to Wenatchee was closed as the fires spread west and hotels in Omak were too close to evacuation zones.

“We learned later that because this particular group of individuals works together, lives together already, eats all their meals together, they could function essentially as a 91-person family.” 

Shelter With Precautions

A shelter at the local high school opened the next evening at 11 p.m., with precautions like masks, daily temperature checks, and social distancing during meals. But 91 farmworkers living and sleeping in a group still exceeds the state-mandated limit of 15 workers per cohort in company housing under a bunk bed ban

Once inside the shelter, farmworkers still experienced issues, particularly around food. Robertson said the Red Cross didn’t realize initially the evacuees were farmworkers and so didn’t prepare culturally appropriate food with a nutritional profile to fit their work demands. 

The Red Cross partnered with local restaurants to correct the oversight and started to provide bagged lunches that farmworkers took to orchards over the next few days.

“There was a lot of learning that took place this time that absolutely we will be able to take advantage of and learn and benefit from in the future,” Robertson says.

Overall, farmworkers who spoke to Northwest Public Broadcasting said they were thankful the Red Cross showed up when it did, even though they had to spend a night in the park.

“I have no complaints of the Red Cross. They treated us well. We’re very thankful,” a guest worker from Jalisco, Mexico says. “Our bosses didn’t worry about us. While we’re here [in the U.S.], we’re under their care.”

Not Clear About Shelter Stay

It’s not clear why the Highland Orchards workers stayed four nights at the shelter. The company declined to comment for this story.

Highland Orchards moved workers out of the shelter on Saturday, Sept. 12. According to Edgar Franks with farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, farmworkers said the move out of the shelter was rushed because Gov. Jay Inslee visited the area Saturday, when he unwittingly brought banned apples with maggot larvae to residents in the region. 

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee toured the town of Bridgeport on Saturday, Sept. 12, unknowingly bringing banned apples with him. But he didn't see the fire-evacuated farmworkers in Brewster, across the river, as the shelter was shut down by the time he arrived.
Credit Governor's Office / Twitter

Workers were promised housing powered by generators, Franks says.

“However, the generators didn’t provide enough power to provide to all the rooms,” Franks says. “That was one of their concerns, that they had no place to store their food. And also that the facility that they are staying in had no potable water.”

Firefighters have made significant progress in containing the Pearl Hill Fire, ushering in a phase of recovery for residents, farmworkers, and growers. For evacuated farmworkers and the community who helped them when they were left at the Brewster park, it’s also a time of reflection as to what went wrong.

Short Supply Of Housing

Washington State Tree Fruit Association president Jon DeVaney says a simple explanation may be that there aren’t many alternatives to company housing like hotels or short-term rentals in rural Washington. 

Disasters like wildfires and the pandemic lead to an even shorter supply of housing.

“When you overlay the concern of putting people in close quarters because of a fire evacuation and not wanting to then expose people to a COVID-risk environment, that further reduces the places that people can be relocated to,” DeVaney says.

It’s this compounding of disasters that has some growers reevaluating how they house workers.

“Having contingency plans for the unavailability of housing for COVID reasons was something a lot of growers were thinking about,” Devaney says. “The overlay of the two happening at the same time made things just that much more complicated this year.”

But some of the farmworkers who slept in the Brewster park won’t wait around for things to get better. At least 10 say they’re going home, leaving the U.S. before the apple harvest is done.

Enrique Pérez de la Rosa covers the Yakima Valley and central Washington for Northwest Public Broadcasting. On Twitter: @byperezdelarosa

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