California farmworkers under strain amid wildfires and pandemic

On a recent foggy morning at a ranch outside Half Moon Bay, California, the air was thick with the smell of smoke. The air quality index (AQI) for the day was deemed an “unhealthy” 153, as the CZU Lightning Complex fire continued to burn about 20 miles (32km) away.

Alberto Menchaca, 37, has worked on the ranch for six years. Asked if the smoke makes it more difficult to perform the already strenuous task of picking crops, he nods.

“The smoke gets in your eyes, and in your lungs,” he said, adding that he was “a little” concerned about potential health effects.

Having been deemed essential workers, farm labourers have continued to work throughout the coronavirus pandemic, and with hundreds of wildfires scorching more than 600,000 hectares of land (1.5 million acres) across California in recent weeks, they face a difficult choice between working in the fields and exposing themselves to smoke-filled air, or giving up shifts that few can afford to pass up.

Yesenia Garcia, a 27-year-old mother of two who has worked on the farm since 2011, said the smoke made things more difficult. “It agitates your lungs a little,” she says. “Because schools are closed, my two children have to stay home. Now, with this smoke, they can’t even play outside.”

Farmworkers evacuated

On August 16, lightning strikes ignited a series of fires that then merged together to become the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, which has burned more than 85,000 acres (34,400 hectares) of land in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, destroying 1,487 structures and killing at least one person.

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