|Never miss a show!
As fires ravaged California’s world-famous wine country in 2017, a community radio station, emergency dispatcher, and tenant organizers helped the most vulnerable in their community survive and recover.
Community organizers and hosts of the podcast But Next Time Chrishelle Palay and Rose Arrieta bring us the first of four stories of hard-won lessons learned from people on the frontlines of California’s wildfires and Texas’ storms as they work to answer the question, how can next time be different?
In this first episode we discuss hardship faced by farm and service workers during this time, especially non-English speakers. These workers are the heart of wine country, from the planters to the harvesters, to the line cooks, hotel staff and dishwashers. Our systems failed them, how do we do better next time?
Thank you to the But Next Time team. To listen to all of the But Next Time episodes and access video versions with Spanish subtitles visit www.butnexttime.com. You can also learn more about the organizations featured in the podcast and access resources like a listening and discussion guide.
But Next Time was created as part of Rise-Home Stories, a project in which multimedia storytellers and housing, land, and racial justice advocates came together to reimagine the past, present, and future of our communities by transforming the stories we tell about them. The Rise-Home Stories Project includes five pieces of media (a video game, children’s book, animated short, and online storytelling site, and the But Next Time Podcast) that help us rethink our relationships to land and home. For more info visit www.risehomestories.com.
Like this story? Support independent journalism, NewsMatch will double your donation up to $1,000!
Featuring: Music: Episode Credits: Making Contact Staff:
Making Contact Staff:
Salima: I’m Salima Hamirani. Today on Making Contact, we’re bringing you a story about how government warning systems in California’s wine country failed thousands of farm and service workers who didn’t speak English when the Tubb’s Fire broke out in 2017.
MARIANO: Around four AM, someone come to my door. When I opened my door it was like yellow. All yellow with the smoke. People was like shock, cry, and run everywhere.
Salima: The dispatch center was overwhelmed with calls from Spanish – speaking migrant workers, abandoned by English language emergency communication systems.
ALMA: There was one particular call, and they were vineyard workers that were being housed on a site and they really didn’t even know where they were.
Salima: The disaster killed 22 people and leveled thousands of homes but it could have been worse if not for grassroots organizers and a community radio station seizing opportunities to respond, rethink and rebuild with an emphasis on justice. Stay with us…
Salima: This story is from our partners at the podcast But Next Time. It’s the first in a four – part series we’re playing all through December.This series tells the story of several disasters: wildfires, the COVID 19 pandemic and hurricanes. These moments pull back the curtain on long standing inequities in our society. But you’re also going to hear the way the people most affected have organized response and recovery and how they’re rebuilding towards a more just, equitable future.
The series hosts Chrishelle Palay and Rose Arrieta met through a network of grassroots advocates working on issues of racial justice, housing and land. For years, they have been on the frontlines of cris-sees that have threatened their communities in Texas and California. Here’s Chrishelle to start us off.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING, FOOTSTEPS ON ASPHALT, SOUNDS OF HAMMERING, SAWING)
CHRISHELLE: It feels lonely out here.
ROSE: It does feel lonely out here. You don’t hear kids, you don’t hear bikes, you don’t hear the bustle of people walking by. It’s just like a dead zone — except for the builder. The construction. And you wonder what happened to the people that lived here? And look it just burned all the way down to the cement, to the foundation. ‘Cause if you have memories of fleeing a fire, you’re not necessarily going to want to return.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC: Different Next Time)
ROSE: The Tubbs Fire that leveled this neighborhood in 2017 caught Northern California off guard. Thousands of people had almost no warning before they woke up in the middle of the night and ran for their lives. Tens of thousands in three counties evacuated. Twenty-two people dead.
I’m Rose Arrieta, and we’re here in Santa Rosa, about an hour north of where I live in San Francisco. Chrishelle Palay and I came here to learn from some of the most vulnerable people in the region — service workers, farmworkers and their families — about how systems failed them during the Tubbs fire.
CHRISHELLE: I’m Chrishelle, and I’m from Houston, born and raised. Before my visit to Sonoma County, I was only familiar with the reputation of a world-famous industry. Lush vineyards, green valleys and beautiful hills that beckon tourists from all over with images of bounty, wealth and the good life in Northern California’s Wine Country.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROSE AND CHRISHELLE TALKING IN CAR)
CHRISHELLE: Huh. Driving in the area, getting context — Who really can afford to live here?
CHRISHELLE: How out of reach the housing costs are.
ROSE: Despite the fact that there was a huge fire.
ROSE: Chrishelle and I met through our advocacy for our communities. Her neighborhood in Houston is historically African American. Many of my neighbors are Black, Brown, like me, or Asian. And we face many of the same battles.
CHRISHELLE: Those of us already living with climate change have witnessed what many more people are waking up to. Disasters pull back the curtain on long standing inequities in our society. The aftermath is an opportunity that powerful forces can really exploit to make matters worse. On the flip side, the people most affected can also seize opportunities to rethink and rebuild things with an emphasis on justice and the common good.
ROSE: Here in 2017, the Tubbs fire overwhelmed emergency services, and community members began leading by example and pushing elected officials, government agencies and corporate nonprofits to do things differently NEXT TIME. We wanted to learn all we could from them, to help our people and yours.
CHRISHELLE: As we drove around Santa Rosa to get our bearings, we saw how one neighborhood that had clearly been leveled by the fire was being entirely rebuilt. It was the Mark West neighborhood, where the new homes under construction lined every street. It didn’t surprise us when we discovered this is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the United States — in the top 15 percent.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROSE AND CHRISHELLE WALKING, SOUNDS OF CONSTRUCTION.)
ROSE: If you compare this to Katrina and how long people waited to get their homes rebuilt. Of course this area is an economic driver. Wine country.
ROSE: Luxury. So look how fast, how quickly they recovered, really.
CHRISHELLE: You still have folks in Houston living in moldy houses.
CHRISHELLE: With blue tarps on their roofs.
(MUSIC SOUND BITE: Native Step)
ROSE: Over the next few days, we sought out people who could help us understand what life is like beyond neighborhoods like Mark West. They live and work behind the scenes of wine country — the thousands of people who make the agriculture and hospitality industries run. Planters, harvesters, farmworkers, care givers, hotel staff, dishwashers. Line cooks. Essential workers.
MARIANO ALVAREZ: I do this job for him. He’s my boy.
ROSE & CHRISHELLE: (laugh, comment)
CHRISHELLE: Mariano Alvarez came to California from Oaxaca, Mexico and he grew up speaking Triqui, an indigenous language.
MARIANO: (In Triqui) My name is Mariano…
CHRISHELLE: And he works with California Rural Legal Assistance. That organization provides low-income Californians with information and free legal help related to employment, education, housing and public benefits. We met with him in his office, decorated with his son’s drawings and images of the farmworkers he serves and heroes of the farmworker movement.
MARIANO: I am the community worker here.
ROSE: Do you work on specific cases? Do you go out in the fields?
MARIANO: Oh, yeah. In collaboration with OSHA …
CHRISHELLE: Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — OSHA — to ensure safe and healthy working conditions.
MARIANO: … also I do field monitoring, field investigation to make sure that our community workers have restroom, toilet, shade. Make sure that they have water, things like that.
CHRISHELLE: As Mariano described the backbreaking work of California vineyard workers, it made me think about African American history in the South.
CHRISHELLE: You know when you were talking about the grapes by the pound. I’m thinking, “Oh, like cotton by the pound,” you know. And even after slavery, with sharecroppers, living on the plantations …
MARIANO: They pay piece-rate, which mean all depends how much you pick up. And that container is very heavy. If you’re not strong enough, you’re not going to be able to lift that container. And you have to be very fast to get your pay. But it’s very expensive to live here. It’s very expensive to live in Sonoma County.
CHRISHELLE: We asked Mariano about the night of the Tubbs fire.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC: Native Step)
MARIANO: El fuego en 2017 …
CHRISHELLE: He was at home asleep when a noisy interruption woke up his family.
MARIANO: Around four AM, someone come to my door. When I opened my door it was like yellow. All yellow with the smoke. People was like shock, cry, and run everywhere. The manager come approach me and say, “We in emergency now. You have ten minutes to get your stuff.” Ten minutes. We say, “Where we go now? North or South? East or West?”
CHRISHELLE: We talked to several people like Mariano who had no warning that night. They learned they were in immediate danger from a knock on their door or a phone call from relatives. Others found out about the danger on a local radio station.
ROSE: Alicia Sanchez is the manager of KBBF. It’s a mostly volunteer, non-commercial radio station.
ALICIA: And I’m the president of the board of directors here. The janitor (laughs). The housekeeper. The mom. To all.
ROSE: KBBF has served Spanish-speakers in Sonoma County for 40 years. During the Tubbs fire it was thrust into providing urgent disaster information, because none of the emergency information from the local authorities was in Spanish.
ALICIA SANCHEZ: Senor Francisco — he’s the one, the first one that called me and said, “Dona Alicia there’s a fire in Santa Rosa. And I just want to see — is that okay if I go to the radio, just to find out what it’s about.”
ROSE: She was out of town when the Tubbs fire hit, and Senor Francisco, a longtime DJ, called from Petaluma to say he wanted to drive the 20 miles north, toward the fire, to get to the radio station.
(SOUNBITE OF MUSIC: Going Back)
ALICIA: He’s a very popular DJ in the morning. His audience is farmworkers, landscapers, construction workers, truckers, people who are in hotels. People call in from the field. And Sr. Francisco said, (in Spanish, then English) “If I’m going to die, I’m going to die in front of this microphone, giving information, al pueblo, to the community.”
CHRISHELLE: Can you imagine? Driving toward that fire…As every car heading in the opposite direction is full of people trying to get away from it? That’s what Sr. Francisco did.
ALICIA: He told the story to his daughter and his daughter said (in Spanish, then English) “That day, father, you saved lives.” And he told me, Sr. Francisco said, “You know, I guess we did, KBBF did.” And we did!
(SOUNDBITE OF COMMUNITY EVENT, VOICES IN LARGE SPACE)
ALMA BOWEN: That night just broke my spirit. I was listening to my community basically lose everything.
ROSE: This is Alma Bowen. She was a 17-year veteran emergency dispatcher with the city of Santa Rosa when the Tubbs fire hit. We met her at an event where she was distributing disaster preparedness information and supplies.
ALMA: As a dispatcher, I remember that night of the fire just being taken aback by what I was hearing. The lack of any preparedness. People had never considered evacuation routes. People didn’t have Go Bags. People — you put panic on top of not being prepared and you get chaos. And that’s what we experienced that night.
ROSE: Alma told us that she had seen first hand how that chaos was even worse for those who didn’t speak English. Her family had arrived in Sonoma County from Mexico when she was three, and her father was a Spanish-speaking farm worker, so as a dispatcher language access was a special concern.
ALMA: I had seen a small spot fire, but it was a small fire and it was very windy. And I’m talking the type of wind that when you walk you have to put effort into walking because the wind wants to push you back.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC: A Feeling About It)
ALMA: As soon as I put on my headset, the calls were coming nonstop.
911 DISPATCHER ALMA BOWEN: The house itself is on fire?
MAN: It’s going to be any minute now.
ALMA: We have a huge vegetation fire and multiple structure fires in that area.
ALMA: We’ll get somebody to you as soon as we can.
MAN: Ok, I’m going to try and keep hosing down.
ROSE: As soon as one call ended another one was cued up on her headset, throughout the night and the next day.
ROSE: How did you hold up during this whole time?
ALMA: We didn’t have time to really think about anything. During certain times of the night, every window we looked out of in our center was surrounded in fire. So at certain points we were looking at our management and asking him, “Are we safe here?” It didn’t feel like we were, you know.
CHRISHELLE: Alma explained that the dispatch center was equipped to deal with individual emergencies, not an entire county in crisis.
ALMA: There was one particular call, and they were vineyard workers that were being housed on a site and they really didn’t even know where they were.
CHRISHELLE : Mariano had told us about how agents — the middle men between employers and the crews they hired — transported workers to farms and vineyards. Some pickers stayed in trailers on the worksite, without transportation so they’re stuck until the agent picked them up again.
ROSE: Somebody referred the call from the vineyard workers to Alma because she was the only dispatcher who spoke Spanish. A translator service was available over the phone, but sometimes her co-workers called her over to help them. Alma told us the culture of the office sometimes made her uncomfortable.
ALMA: At that point I was the only non-white person that worked there. There were terms being used in the dispatch center — they would call “Hispanic panic.” And I remember hearing both the crews out in the field and fellow coworkers using that term. And being I had no idea, like, what does that mean? I knew it was derogatory. I felt it was derogatory. At one point I was like, “What are you talking about?” And they were like, “Well, you know, a lot of times the Hispanics …” And I’m all, “First of all, don’t call them ‘Hispanics.’” “You know, they call in and it can be a fever and they’re completely wigging out and they’re screaming and yelling.” And I said, “Did you ever consider that maybe their experience to calling a system is a little bit different than what yours might be?” They come from countries where uniforms are not friendly.
ROSE: So that night, one of Alma’s co-workers turned the call from those migrant workers over to her.
ALMA: And because they didn’t know the address, and they couldn’t speak English to read any type of sign, she was having the worst time trying to get a location on them. And so once he spelled it out, letter by letter, we actually were able to get a location for them. And so once I spoke to the gentleman, I told him, there’s nobody there that’s going to help you so you guys need to get out. If you have a body of water that you guys can get into, do that.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC: Per Pound)
That night we ran out of help. And that was absolutely the hardest thing to tell people, “Nobody is coming for you.” So even though there’s a wall of fire in front of you, you have to figure out how to get through that.
ROSE: Alma didn’t get back home to her family for 24 hours. In the days to come, when the paper listed the names of people who’d died, she paid particular attention.
ALMA: I kept looking to see if there were any Latino names in there. I was really worried. It really weighed on me. Like did they get out? ‘Cause you don’t know. As a dispatcher, that’s one of the things you deal with a lot of times. You don’t get to see the outcome or know the outcome.
CHRISHELLE: While Alma fielded hundreds of calls from individuals, Alicia and the KBBF staff and volunteers worked to broadcast evacuation routes and other information in real time. Officials did not hold a press conference until the next day, and then it was only in English. Alicia, the station manager, did the best she could with that.
ALICIA: I translated what was being said by the different people from either the city, the County, the firemen, the Sheriff, highway patrol. All the kind of officials.
CHRISHELLE: When there was a pause, whoever was translating would then go on air and another person would take over monitoring the announcements and working on translation.
KBBF ANNOUNCER (in Spanish, translates press conference) traducir … funcionarios del gobierno … incendios … a Espanol.
CHRISHELLE: The next day, people at the station decided Alicia should go to the press conference and talk with the officials. Their listeners had so many concerns that nobody was addressing. One urgent issue was that many were afraid to go to shelters because they feared anybody in uniform would ask them about their immigration status.
ALICIA: We went to the press conference and I asked that question. I said, “Look, are you going to be asking immigration status?” And of course they all said “No, no, we’re not going to do that.” After that press conference, I went up to them and I said to them, “You need to get on the air. You need to call. Here’s my card. It needs to come straight from the official’s mouth.” Then the other thing I said, “I know you got some Spanish-speaking personnel. Put ‘em up there.” So they did, they started to then have a second press conference. At first it was the English press conference, and then afterwards they would do it in Spanish.
ROSE: When we spoke to KBBF’s program director, Edgar Avila, about the crucial role the radio station played during the disaster, he offered a reality check.
EDGAR: It feels like what we did is a no-brainer. I feel like the story is more about what didn’t get done by others that actually have resources, that have tons of money. That’s the story rather than what we did, which is what any community organization really would do or should be doing.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC: Full-Bodied Disparity)
CHRISHELLE: After the smoke cleared, many people had lost their homes and jobs. As we’ve seen on the Gulf Coast, there are countless ways those who survive a disaster can fall through the cracks. We wanted to find the people in Sonoma County who were trying to make the recovery process just and fair.
ROSE: Through my work on the housing crisis in San Francisco and Oakland, I knew that the North Bay Organizing Project was helping people struggling with the high cost of housing in Wine Country. I called tenant organizer Beatrice Camacho.
BEATRICE CAMACHO: We’re hearing and seeing so many individuals who struggle to pay rent and put food on the table. Families renting out a room that’s divided in four by curtains because that’s the only way in which folks are able to afford a place to live here in Sonoma County, that are cleaning homes as domestic workers like my mom was growing up. Folks that are out working in the vineyards, folks who are renting.
ROSE: When we got to Santa Rosa, Beatrice sat down with us to reflect on the Tubbs fire.
CHRISHELLE: Focusing on tenants living in bad conditions prior to these disasters and then not having any resources afterwards.
BEATRICE CAMACHO: Yes. In 2017, the focus was on the homes that were lost, right? But then what about the renters that were renting those homes? And the individuals who were evicted from homes that were still standing — so that the owners would be able to rent them to folks who perhaps lost their home and had insurance money. One of our leaders shared the story about his brother who was living in Coffey Park when the fires happened. He hosed down the house to make sure he would save it, before evacuating. The house was one of the only ones standing in the area. And then the landlord evicted him from that home and re-rented to somebody else.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC: Full-Bodied Disparity)
CHRISHELLE: Oh yeah, that sounds familiar. In Houston, when people profit from disaster, or any humanitarian crisis, we call that “disaster capitalism.”
ROSE: This has happened in Haiti, it has happened in Puerto Rico.
CHRISHELLE: It happens all over the world.
ROSE: On average, rents right after the Tubbs fire went up 36 percent. Some of the landlords were brought to court and ordinances were passed to prevent price-gouging. But these were just temporary protections.
BEATRICE: Our city council in Santa Rosa decided to not extend the local emergency price gouging ordinance.
CHRISHELLE: So often, the safeguards in place don’t protect us. We see loopholes that ultimately leave our neighborhoods vulnerable to exploitation. The housing crisis is definitely getting worse, not better.
ROSE: Beatrice explained that long before these wildfires, low-wage workers, about 28-thousand of them undocumented — struggled to find affordable housing. These wildfires made a longer-term crisis worse — a rental market going haywire. The year after the Tubbs fire, an average two-bedroom apartment was twenty five hundred dollars a month, while farmworkers brought home a lot less.
CHRISHELLE: The math just doesn’t work! How do people survive?
(SOUNDBITE OF COMMUNITY MEETING, TRANSLATION IN SPANISH)
CHRISHELLE: Beatrice has been working with a coalition to create a tenants union to protect the rights of low-income renters.
BEATRICE: We had our very first Sonoma County Tenants Union general membership meeting and renters’ assembly.
WOMAN (SPANISH TRANSLATOR in foreground): That’s how we build that solidarity. We don’t have to worry so much …
WOMAN: I forgot to say this at the beginning, there are over 15 million tenants in California …
BEATRICE: Folks from all across the County came together in unity and solidarity, as renters, talking about issues that are important to us. Talking about forming apartment associations, talking about community land trusts. How do we look at housing in a different way? Because the way we’re looking at it right now is not working.
WOMAN: So, here we go, the California State Legislature enacted this rent cap. Each year the landlord may not raise the rent more than 10 percent of the current rent.
CHRISHELLE: Amazing. In Houston, by comparison, rent caps are outlawed.
ROSE: That’s so wrong. That’s crazy.
CHRISHELLE: Mhmm. So even when cities create anything that looks close to inclusionary zoning, the state preempts it and says “No one in Texas can do this.”
ROSE: In California, though, there are so many exceptions that it really only covers about half of the state’s renters. We can do better.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC: Next Blues)
… More than half of renters in California pay more than 30 percent of their income to stay housed. That’s unaffordable, and means millions of people are on the verge of homelessness.
SANCHEZ: One of the things we value in this Beloved Community and this organization is language justice. Want to take a moment to acknowledge the interpreters today. Right? Let’s give it up for our translators. (cheers, applause)
ROSE: It was exciting to feel the energy of people getting organized.
CHRISHELLE: It’s so clear something has to change. I came away from that meeting feeling like they are really building a movement.
SANCHEZ: … Because what’s happening in Sonoma County — It affects everyone in California. This is a statewide problem and we need to address it everywhere.
BEATRICE: And so, this is just the beginning and it’s exciting and we’re looking forward to what the future holds for us.
CHRISHELLE: We’ll follow up on that beginning, and on the ways people are organizing for a just and fair future, in our next episode.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC: But Next Time)
Ending with Updates:
I’m Salima Hamirani. You’re listening to Making Contact. Since the original release of this episode in 2021 the people and organizations you heard about are still in action. They’ve continued their work for just recovery from natural disasters and broader language justice efforts. Beatrice Camacho, who we heard from in this episode organizing tenants impacted by the disasters, was named the first director of Undocufund Sonoma – a project providing direct financial assistance to undocumented victims of the Northern California disasters.
Producers at But Next Time caught up with Bea when she spoke at the Center for Political Education conference in March 2023.
Bea Camacho-coming into 2023, our main focus was how do we prepare and get ready for wildfires but Mother Earth had a different agenda for us with these storms that not only hit Sonoma County, but the entire state. And the impact that it’s having on our, our undocumented community, you know, is worse. We always talk about wildfires don’t discriminate. Floods don’t discriminate, right? These disasters don’t discriminate. They will, um, they will hit wherever they’re going to hit, regardless of who’s living there, who’s in the way. But at the end of the day, the individuals that are most impacted when it comes to recovery are those that don’t have access to the same resources that documented individuals do.
Salima: Camacho says Undocufund functions with minimal red tape. That means they’re able to get money in the hands of people who need it, quickly. This was particularly important during the winter storms of early 2023, when farmworkers could not return to work. Undocufund’s work getting funds directly to those who need it, inspired the founding of dozens of similar emergency funds for undocumented communities in California and around the country.
And that’s not all. Together community organizers and farmworker groups in California lobbied Sonoma County supervisors to create a 2 Million dollar “community disaster immediate needs fund” modeled on Undocufund. After the winter storms, the county fund provided direct support to 1,700 individuals to keep them housed, mitigate wage loss, and prevent food insecurity.
Bea Camacho: I think there’s always room for improvement, but the work that various organizations around Sonoma County, um, like have done to get to where we are right now is a vast improvement from five, six years ago. Um, so that’s definitely not lost on me, but how do we continue to move in the right direction?
Salima: Join us next week for the next installment of But Next Time on Making Contact. For more updates and connections to the organizations featured in the series visit our website, radioproject.org where you can find links to everything in the show notes. You can also visit butnextime.com to find Spanish subtitled versions of the episodes and more. Until next week, I’m Salima Hamirani.