Health & Safety, Research and Studies

Farmworker Preparedness during San Diego Wildfires

From PublicHealthPractices.org, Source Agency: National Latino Research Center at California State University San Marcos

California is home to the second highest number of FEMA-declared disasters each year, and it is also a substantial producer of much of the nation’s agriculture. Farmworker communities are prevalent especially throughout southern California, and it is estimated that 2.8 million people, many of them farmworkers, are undocumented.

During the 2007 San Diego wildfires, approximately 368,316 acres of land were burned and 1,751 homes were destroyed. Farmworker communities were especially vulnerable to the effects of the fire, due to loss of employment, the lack of evacuation information in Spanish, fear of uniformed officers and deportation, confusion about eligibility for services, and poor infrastructure and housing in farmworker camps.

Before the 2007 fires, preparedness was a fairly unfamiliar concept to farmworker communities and the organizations that served them. Farmworkers experienced a variety of barriers to emergency preparedness, such as a lack of resources with which to plan or stockpile. When farmworkers lost or had to evacuate their homes due to the fire, the traditional safety net of community clinics and shelters was unable to respond to the cultural, linguistic, economic, and health needs of the displaced people.

Recognizing that farmworkers were disproportionately affected by the wildfires, San Diego’s Farmworker CARE (Coordination/Communication, Advocacy/Access, Research/Resources, Empowerment/Education) Coalition has worked to involve farmworker communities in preparedness efforts during the past three years. The Farmworker CARE Coalition is a collaborative effort between several governmental and community-based agencies (CBOs) in the San Diego area, including the National Latino Research Center at California State University San Marcos, Vista Community Clinic, Pala Indian Reservation Fire Department, the San Diego Office of Emergency Services, American Red Cross, and Poder Popular (a CBO that works to advance the health of farmworkers).

During the wildfires, CARE dispatched community health workers (CHWs), or Lideres Comunitarios, who lived in farmworker communities and had received six years of training in basic health issues. The health workers were able to provide significant guidance when the traditional safety net of community clinics and shelters was relatively inaccessible. In the years following the fires, CARE provided twelve CHWs with 40 hours of training on disaster preparedness and the Incident Command System (ICS) and was able to design an ICS structure that integrated CHWs’ unique roles.

The integration of community health workers into ICS structure and the involvement of community partners made a significant different in how farmworkers are now able and willing to prepare for a disaster. Preparedness efforts occurring in the San Diego farmworker community since the wildfires include:

  • CARE partners, including the American Red Cross, trained farmworkers in provision of CPR and First Aid skills.
  • Farmworkers formed a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), following extensive training provided by the Pala Indian Reservation Fire Department.
  • CARE recruited churches known to be friendly toward the Latino and migrant farmworkers to designate their buildings as safe havens during a disaster to mitigate community fears about evacuating to a shelter.
  • With the assistance of CARE, farmworkers have identified and continue to inventory community assets that could be necessary during a disaster, such as churches, ethnic media, food banks, fire stations, and relief agencies.
  • CARE trained farmworkers to advocate for disaster preparedness assistance and consideration at all levels of government. This training resulted in farmworkers advocating their rights to preparedness in front of first responders, relief agencies, and legislators.
  • Because many farmworkers live in camps or in trailers on the Pala Indian Reservation, CARE is planning to develop a database or GIS mapping system to identify neighborhoods, trailer parks, and camps where farmworkers live in order to assure they receive assistance during a disaster.

Community health workers and coalition members had the chance to exercise their skills and partnerships in 2009 following an apartment fire in the northern San Diego County town of Fallbrook. Fallbrook hosts a large number of avocado groves and is home to many farmworkers and their families. After the fire, CARE CHWs focused on assuring that children displaced from the apartment complex had the materials and support they needed to return to school as quickly as possible. CARE also enlisted the help of Vista Community Clinic to provide healthcare and the assistance of the Mexican Consulate to print farmworkers’ damaged or destroyed documents.

Given the prevalence of farmworkers and other migrant communities in many states and the difficulties inherent in planning for their needs, CARE and the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services hope that their farmworker disaster plan can be adapted by public health agencies across the nation.

Contributing Agencies:

  • Vista Community Clinic
  • Pala Indian Reservation Fire Department
  • San Diego Office of Emergency Services
  • American Red Cross
  • Poder Popular
  • State / Territory:
  • California

Source: PublicHealthPractices.org, “Farmworker Preparedness during San Diego Wildfires” Source Agency: National Latino Research Center at California State University San Marcos

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