Forgotten Fire Victims: Farmworkers and Day Laborers Face Harsh Reality After Fires

“I sleep where I fall,” said Salvador with a weary smile one early evening during the October fires.

He was standing in the doorway of La Luz Center in Sonoma after eating a free dinner of pasta and salad. At dusk, the smoke had lifted for a brighter sunset than the hazy days before. Families came and went around him, carrying free supplies — diapers, canned food and bottled water.

Too embarrassed to go to a shelter, Salvador had been living out of his car for the eight days since the fires started in Sonoma and Napa counties.

“Thank God we have La Luz,” he said. “Here we can eat, thanks to God. This is like home.”

Behind him, mulling over their meal in the dining hall, Glafira and Rodrigo were weighing their next move.

“Three nights ago we were living in the car,” she said. Immediately after the house they were renting in Santa Rosa burned in the Tubbs fire, they lived out of an SUV with their three children — daughters 6-year-old Joatsi and 3-year-old Jade and 8-month-old son Gael. Glafira cleans houses for a living, but the houses of her clients had been destroyed in the fires. Now, they were living in Rodrigo’s mother’s living room.

Along with Salvador and countless others, they are the often forgotten fire victims — those who cleaned the houses that went up in flames, who worked the land that burned, who cooked the food and made the beds in restaurants and hotels that no longer exist — many of whom may never qualify for federal aid because they’re undocumented.

They were living day to day before the fires, and now they’re looking for their next paycheck. The people who landscaped the lawns of those vanished hillside homes are among those wondering how they will pay next month’s rent or move into a new apartment.

For many, La Luz, a community nonprofi t focused on the needs of Mexican immigrants, has been the last resort. “We don’t ask if they’re documented or not —they need the service and we provide the service,” says La Luz board president Marcelo Defreitas, who helped his staff serve free lunches and dinners every day during the fires and after. By early December, they had served 2,000 hot meals to more than 500 families, donated 5 tons of supplies (diapers, clothing and canned goods) and helped more than 250 families with rent assistance totaling over $400,000. By Jan. 15, La Luz is required to spend all of the $750,000 passed on by Redwood Credit Union to the La Luz fund to help with fire victims.

Earlier that same day in October, as more than a hundred people lined up at the weekly free Food Pantry at St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Sonoma, Father James Fredericks explained, “At first there’s fire, OK, but we don’t think about going for days and even weeks afterwards. There’s one complication after another.”

That afternoon at First Congregational Church in Santa Rosa, Augustin, his wife and three children met with Davin Cardenas at North Bay Organizing Project, which has joined with other Sonoma County grassroots organizations to start UndocuFund to raise money for undocumented fire victims.

“My concern is we’re not going to get enough help,” said Augustin, his children sitting at his feet. His family barely escaped their house on Riebli Road before it burned. A carpenter by trade, he hadn’t worked for weeks.

“It’s hard to think, I don’t have nothing,” he said, holding his wife’s hand. “And I don’t have a job. And I don’t know where to start again.”

Turning a Corner

Two weeks later, Glafira returned to La Luz with her daughter Jade for a 10 a.m. appointment with her case manager. Her husband Rodrigo stayed outside in the SUV with their son and older daughter.

“We decided not to go back to our house because we knew there was nothing there,” she said, waiting in the crowded lobby with several other families.

After meeting with Defreitas and case manager Veronica Vences, Glafira received a check for $1,920 to pay for the first month’s rent on a new apartment in Agua Caliente.

“It’s a start,” said Defreitas, giving her a phone number for a woman in Sonoma who needed house-cleaning help, as well as his cellphone number in case she had any questions. He explained that La Luz will likely help out with the following month’s rent, too.

“We’ll see where you are in a month — if you have jobs or not.”

Outside, beside the SUV they once called home, Glafira gave her husband a big hug and told him the good news. Soon they would drive to Petaluma where he was applying for a job at Petaluma Poultry. But first she smiled a smile that had been missing for weeks.

“It’s nice to have hope again,” she said. “It feels good.”

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