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When Fires Burn Though Neighborhoods, Some Immigrants Workers Become First Responders

Reed Saxon
AP Photo
A home is consumed by the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018.

Climate change is fueling devastating wildfires in California, and in some cases, low-wage immigrant workers are cleaning up after them. They sweep ash out of houses and strip debris from burned buildings.

Many of these workers are involved in “second responder” work and clean and rebuild communities after wildfires have burned through them. But advocates say some workers have been unofficial “first responder” to some of the state’s most historic disasters.

When the Woolsey Fire started in 2018, Eladio Osorio was sitting outside the Malibu Labor Exchange in a strip mall by the beach, trying to drum up work. A day laborer in one of the wealthiest parts of the country, he works long days building poolside gazebos and sprucing up mansions for TV shoots.

“I try to get up every day at four in the morning, so I can catch a bus on the boulevard [to get here],” he says. “It feels good, when you come back with something in your pocket.”

Like a lot of low-wage immigrant workers, Eladio knew the Woolsey Fire could wipe out his client base in Malibu. He was worried about rent, worried about supporting his daughter. So when an older white man drove up to the Malibu Labor Exchange in a truck, Eladio wasn’t feeling picky.

“He looked like one of those Texas Rangers,” Eladio says. “You know, that kind of strong person.”

He says the man was looking for workers to defend his home from the Woolsey Fire. “He says, ‘OK, I need for guys to take care of my property. Because the fires are coming,’” Eladio remembers. “‘If you guys have heart, if you guys think you can do it, we'll take you.’”

Eladio decided to take the job. He says he helped the man in the truck pick out three other workers, and they drove deep into Malibu’s dry hills together.

“Are We Going To Survive This?”

At one point, Eladio says the man stopped at a gas station. “He bought us burritos — you know, that kind of burrito that you just put into the microwave?” he says. “We’re talking about three today, three tomorrow, and three the next day.”

He says the plan was to stay and fight the wildfire for three days — as long as it took.

“He [also] gave us masks,” Eladio says. “The cheapest mask I've ever seen, it was like nothing.” It looked like an N95 mask, he says. He added that the man also gave them all goggles and gloves, though the gloves were too small for Eladio’s hands.

Eventually, they pulled up in front of a large house on a steep hill, with a balcony overlooking the sea. Eladio says none of the man’s neighbors were there. “It was like a ghost town,” he says.

Eladio says the man handed him and the other laborers hoses, a little thicker than garden hoses. I know what I’m doing, he remembers the man saying. I’ve done this before. “He said that he has lived 40 years living in the house and that's what he does every year when the fire comes,” Eladio remembers.

He says he and the other laborers started hosing down the home’s roof and walls, and that the man directed him to spray down a few of his neighbors’ homes too.

That night, “we saw the fire coming this way,” Eladio says, “little by little. About this time, we could see the flames coming towards us. Then I went like, ‘man, are we going to survive this?’” 

He says they were ready with the hoses. “There were huge flames,” he remembers, “and then you hear the sound of all the bushes burning.” Eladio says that’s about when the wildfire hit some neighboring houses’ propane gas tanks. It sounded like a series of bombs.

Eladio says the man who hired him sat inside his house while the laborers fought the fire, occasionally coming out to check on them. “He just came sometimes to say, ‘hey! Are you guys awake? You guys gotta be ready.’”

“‘Yeah man, we're awake,” Eladio remembers saying. “‘What else are we gonna do, we were afraid. We don't wanna die.’”

He says he and the other laborers tried to take naps in the man’s garage. The electricity was out, so he says they couldn’t heat up and eat those gas station burritos. He remembers that it was difficult to breathe with the fire so close.

“You’ve got to think about that, every minute,” Eladio says. “[Because] who cares about us? Just us. If we don't take care of ourselves, nobody else is going to do it.”

Over the next three days, Eladio says the Woolsey Fire burned its way around them, and the house on the hill survived. When the job was finished, he says the man paid him $600, which came out to around $20 an hour. He also says the man didn’t tip.

“I mean, you have to appreciate what we did for you, man,” Eladio says.

“First Responder” Work

When a wildfire burns through a neighborhood, the low-wage immigrants who work there lose jobs they rely on. Sometimes, they’re recruited into new jobs that could jeopardize their health and safety. While workers’ rights advocates say the experience Eladio describes is extreme, they also say they’ve met other workers who were paid to do “first responder” work during California’s wildfires.

“You're seeing workers working in mandatory evacuation zones, which is really troubling because you're having whole areas evacuated,” says Nicole Marquez-Baker, a staff attorney at the worker’s rights non-profit Worksafe. “Domestic workers and day laborers showing up to work to engage in fire suppression or protection of property.”

One domestic worker interviewed by KALW said she and her employer stayed behind at his house on the first day of the Woolsey Fire, hosing down his roof as the wildfire burned closer. She asked to be referred to by her first name, Maribel, because she feared repercussions at work.

Marquez-Baker’s organization has heard similar stories from workers following the 2018 Woolsey Fire and 2019 Getty Fire. Kim Alvarenga, the Director of California’s Domestic Workers’ Coalition, has heard stories like this, too. 

“Our members have been very clear that they want to be protected,” she says, adding that many domestic workers in her coalition are not covered by California’s health and safety laws. “They don't want to feel afraid of saying no to someone that is going to ask them to be a first responder.”

Climate change is making California’s wildfires more dangerous, and some wealthy residents have resorted to defending their neighborhoods with private fire brigades. In an interview with KALW, CALFire spokesperson Scott MacLean said he’d never heard of anyone hiring day laborers to do this work. California law requires private firefighting groups to train their employers, and they have to get permission from a wildfire’s incident command center before entering mandatory evacuation zones. Firefighters are also supposed to be provided with certain types of helmets, footwear, and fire-resistant clothing.

Returning To Malibu

The last time I was in Malibu, Eladio and I went back to the house he saved from the Woolsey Fire. It’s a cozy, stilted house with a beautiful view, and a woman with long blond hair was standing on the balcony outside. I wanted to introduce myself, but I thought Osorio wouldn’t want me to do it while he was there. He told me to go right ahead. “I’ve worked for that family again since it happened,” he says. “Sometimes they can be nice.”

The man who hired Eladio came out on the balcony. He and Eladio joked around awkwardly for a minute—they were wearing similarly patterned shirts—then he consented to an interview with me. His name is Bill Raffin, and he says he’s defended his neighborhood from wildfires four times over the course of 40 years.

“I have a plaque from Congress and the State of California and the county of Los Angeles for saving my neighbors’ homes,” he says.

Until the Woolsey Fire hit, Bill says he used to fight the wildfires himself. “The first time, when your life could be potentially in danger, it's obviously something that you have a greater fear about,” he says. “But you must move slowly when necessary and fast when necessary. As time has gone on, I must admit it's been easier to deal with the fears and challenges that I've been subjected to.”

BILL’s 73 now, and he says he’s getting too old to fight fires himself anymore. So, this time around, he says, he hired Eladio and a few other people.

“I don’t know what the word fairly means,” he says, when asked how he worked to treat the laborers he hired fairly. “They were paid well to help us get orchestrated to fight this fire.”Our interview ended a few minutes later.

On the drive back to Los Angeles from Malibu, I asked Eladio if he would fight a fire like that for Bill again. “Maybe,” he said. “But not for $600, $700. My life, it’s worth more than that.”

The next day, we talked on the phone, and Eladio had some questions about my interview with Bill. “Did he say that I did a good job?” He asked me. “Did he thank me?”

Reporting for this story was supported by the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism's 2019 National Fellowship and the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism.

Teresa Cotsirilos was a reporter at KALW covering labor rights and public health in the Bay Area’s immigrant communities.