In the summer of 2019, as California was, once again, plagued by deadly fires, the state put in place emergency regulations aimed at protecting outdoor workers from the worst impacts of smoke and ash inhalation. Whenever the Air Quality Index rose above 151, employers were required to provide N95 masks and other PPE to outdoor workers, such as those working in agriculture or construction.
The rules sound good in theory—and they’re certainly a good deal better than nothing. But in practice, it’s hard for employees to keep track of something as fluid as air quality on an hourly basis, and it’s even harder to enforce these regulations in a state with 40 million people.
The result: As megafires, so large that they can traverse Sierra Nevada mountain passes, become the West’s catastrophic new norm, vast numbers of low wage, casualized workers—who are brought in to clean up toxic debris in the immediate aftermath of fires, or who are kept on to try to rescue crops by harvesting them during the fires when everyone around them is evacuating—are exposed to ever-higher levels of toxins.
California has the toughest air quality and emissions standards in the country. Yet the huge fires, which experts believe are creating such scarification that it will take the land half a century to recover, are releasing more CO2 in the atmosphere than all the state’s power plants, and more than tens of millions of vehicles. California has some of the toughest workplace safety regulations in the country, yet, in the aftermath of these fiery disasters, tens of thousands of workers are being exposed to devastating levels of toxins that could well impose long-term, potentially fatal damage on their hearts and lungs.
Unlike the essential workers who were, and continue to be, lauded during the Covid pandemic, the West’s casualized workers, the men and women who risk long-term health damage to go into fire zones to start the cleanup and to begin the long, slow, rebuilding process, are generally invisible. So too are the day laborers who go into hurricane zones in the Southern states to start the repair process after the winds and flooding move on. They tend to be undocumented, to not speak fluent English, to not have any political muscle. Advocates call them “second responders,” acknowledging both the vital role they play in the recovery economy, as the country bounces from one climate-change-induced crisis to the next, but also the lack of recognition they receive.
In 2020, the fires in California were even worse than in 2019, the year that the rules were established to, in theory, expand workplace protections for the casualized labor force. And in 2021, the infernos threaten to become worse still. It’s only August, and California is nearer the beginning than the end of fire season, and yet, as of the time of writing, more than one and a half million acres have already gone up in flames. By the time you read this, in all likelihood that number will be rapidly climbing toward 2 million acres.
There is an unfathomable, Götterdämmerung-like scale to the destruction being wrought in the West by flames these days. With the Caldor fire threatening to consume the fabled Tahoe basin, the story in California has become, quite simply, fires, fires, fires. Tens of thousands of people are under mandatory evacuation orders; tens of thousands of homes—in a state that already has upwards of 160,000 homeless people, and that faces a tsunami of evictions if and when eviction moratoriums are lifted—are at risk of being destroyed. Depending on which way the wind is blowing each day, vast swathes of the Golden State are under a dull brown toxic smoke haze. On a bad day, it looks like the blitzed, post-apocalyptic atmosphere of Blade Runner. For those unfortunate enough to be working outside, in large parts of the state that means they are breathing air that has particulate matter levels 10 or more times higher than what the EPA considers to be safe.
More than 80 years ago, the great dust storms that plagued Oklahoma and surrounding states threatened to permanently wreck the environment of the country’s interior. Millions fled west to escape ferocious, weeks-long storms that turned the sky black and devastated both the land and also the health of residents forced to breath the sandy muck. In response, FDR’s government launched a series of ambitious environment-restoring programs, including the Soil Erosion Service and the Prairie States Forestry Project. The Civilian Conservation Corps employed thousands to work on projects to restore the topsoil. In 1937, the administration established the $75 million Shelterbelt Project, to plant millions of trees in a crash-course effort to repair the damage done to the soil by decades of rapacious farming techniques.
The efforts paid off, and over time the Dust Bowl was saved.
Today, a similarly ambitious program is needed at the federal level. Unless this country commits to long-term strategies, not only to limit climate change but also to reimagine Western landscapes so as to minimize the risk of megafires sweeping through thousands of square miles of terrain, the tragedy of the devastating infernos will only intensify. And the scale not only of the physical destruction but also of the CO2 emissions caused by these blazes will worsen, year by year. This will make it all-but-impossible to meaningfully reduce the amounts of CO2 emissions entering the atmosphere.
The brave response to the Dust Bowl showed that, in environmental emergencies, the Feds can act both creatively and fast. Today, the better part of a century later, the need for outside-the-box thinking on the megafires, and for publicly funded programs that employ people to work on fire mitigation efforts around the west before the next season of fires burn out of control, is every bit as urgent.