As California Burns, Undocumented People Face Gap in Recovery Aid 

California is on fire.

As this piece is being written, the Camp Fire is racing across northern California at a rate of about eighty football fields per minute. To the south in Ventura County, the Hill Fire has already scorched 30,000 acres in a single day. Although I am sitting safely in my home hundreds of miles away from either blaze, I can actually smell the smoke. The air is hazy and the sun has taken on an eerie reddish hue. It’s November. It hasn’t rained in months. And it’s not forecasted to anytime soon.

Earlier this summer, the largest wildfire in the state’s history — the Mendocino Complex Fire — burned so intensely that it generated its own weather patterns, creating ‘fire whirls’ that uprooted trees and ripped roofs off of homes. Stretching out over almost 500 square miles, the Mendocino Complex fire burned through an area roughly the size of the city of Los Angeles, and it was just one of more than a dozen infernos active in the state at the time.

Wildfire has always been a normal feature of California’s ecosystems. Periodic blazes serve to clean up dead litter on the forest floor and play an important role in the reproduction of certain plants. What is not normal are the climate change-fueled extreme weather conditions that have led to larger and more frequent fires. The period between fall of 2011 and fall of 2015 was the driest in California’s history, with 62 million trees dying in 2016 alone, largely due to drought. According to science writer Gary Ferguson, these prolonged droughts, coupled with broken heat records, have led to forests filled with trees as flammable as the kiln-dried timber found in lumber yards.

We’ve already reached a one-degree Celsius increase of average global temperatures, and at this rate, we may be on track for 4°C. As the reality of an increasingly chaotic climate begins to settle in, it must be viewed through the lens of social, economic and political realities as well, which often seem equally as stark as the climate situation. What does the growing threat of climate-fueled disasters mean for the most vulnerable among us?

Despite fashioning itself as the torchbearer for progressive politics, California is actually one of the most unequal states in the US. It’s home to an estimated 2.35 – 2.6 million undocumented individuals, who, despite playing an essential role in the state’s economy, serve as an underclass facing challenges that range from workplace sexual harassment to outright wage theft.

The undocumented community is also restricted, either legally or out of fear of deportation, from accessing disaster relief funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — a source of funding that can make an immense difference for afflicted individuals and families.

When the Tubbs Fire, the most destructive wildfire in California’s history, blazed through the state’s northern county of Sonoma in October 2017, the undocumented community was left without any official support. Although still under investigation by CalFire, the fire was most likely sparked by poorly maintained power lines that were the responsibility of Pacific Gas and Electric, the investor-owned state utility company. But it was the strong winds and unusually dry conditions that caused the fire to advance rapidly into densely populated suburban areas, killing 22 people and destroying 5,643 structures. Currently there is a battle being fought over who will be held accountable for the damages, but what was immediately clear after the fire was that undocumented individuals were on their own when it came to federal relief funding.

This glaring gap in recovery aid quickly became apparent to those paying attention, and a handful of organizations came together to create a fund designed specifically for the undocumented community. UndocuFund, as it became known, stood in direct opposition to the diet of racist divide-and-conquer rhetoric that has been a staple of the recent US political climate.

“In the beginning we didn’t know if we’d raise $50,000 or $100,000. Never did we expect the $6 million we’ve raised so far,” Omar Medina, the director of UndocuFund, says. “But as people learned about us – they sympathized with the need. They understood the need based on everything that we’ve experienced lately on a national level as it relates to the undocumented community. And the generosity came pouring in.”

Pastor Al, an undocumented immigrant living in the Santa Rosa neighborhood of Coffey Park, lost his home in the fire. But thanks to UndocuFund, he was able to keep his family housed and fed during the months after the fire. “We were very grateful for the help. It helped my family get situated. The food, the clothing — we were very grateful.”

A similar fund emerged in December 2017 after the Thomas Fire — at that time the largest fire in California’s history — struck Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties in southern California. These types of grassroots relief efforts are not uncommon, and they tend to arise in situations where particularly vulnerable communities have been abandoned by official authorities.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of UndocuFund, however, is that it has grown into much more than just a fire relief fund. Through their interaction with much of the undocumented community, UndocuFund coordinators began to form a larger vision with the aim of addressing some of the long term, systemic injustices afflicted the community. When disasters strike, they tend to merely intensify issues that are already present. For example, the loss in wages that resulted from the Tubbs Fire was a serious challenge to many in the undocumented community — but the truth is that their wages before the fire were already almost impossible to live off of in the Bay Area. Not to mention ongoing labor violations, the fear of ICE raids, and a housing crisis that was only exacerbated by the fire.

“I think with the UndocuFund it’s an opportunity to start talking about equity amongst working people,” says Davin Cardenas, the co-director of the North Bay Organizing Project, which was one of the organizations involved in coordinating UndocuFund. “Part of the UndocuFund infrastructure is to make sure we’re developing relationships and beginning to heighten the voices of workers in a whole range of issues.”

Most recently the UndocuFund project has taken the form of people’s assemblies and listening circles with the fund’s recipients in order to learn more about the challenges faced by the undocumented community in Sonoma County and to explore the kinds of changes they’d like to see take place.

“That’s really the next step in thinking about our resiliency,” says Mara Ventura, the executive director of North Bay Jobs with Justice. “We want to see undocumented people leading and making the decisions for the solutions they want to see, that they’re getting the skills and the training they need to help see through the solutions that they want to build, that their voices are the decision-makers, that we’re actually changing systems — or building new systems — to address long term needs.”

As we venture out into a world characterized by more extreme weather events fueled by climate change and exacerbated by a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment, we can only hope to see more examples of this kind of community organization and solidarity spread across the country.

Note: An earlier version of this story, which was adapted from a podcast episode produced by The Response, previously appeared in STIR magazine.