Written by: Tori B. Powell
When wildfires ravaged through California this summer, 46-year-old Victor Rama said that mentally, he had to prepare for more than just losing his own home to the flames. As an Oakland construction worker of more than ten years, Rama said he also had concerns about all of the buildings that he once helped construct within his city as well.
“You take pride driving by something that you built,” he said in a phone interview. “You’re a part of it from the very beginning to the very end. To just see it go away…I think that’s something that you will never forget.”
By late September this year, more than 2.2 million acres had burned in the state of California, and 6,447 different fires were sparked according to the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE.) At least 30 people have died in California’s fires this year, and a study conducted by Stanford University revealed that more than 1,000 people have died of health complications from air pollution that the fires helped create.
The reason points straight towards human-induced climate change and global warming that’s made the already fire prone area hotter and dryer over time, according to scientists at the University of East Anglia.
This unprecedent damage in the west coast state will likely be rebuilt by Latinx construction workers – who make up more than half of all construction workers in the Southwest – and who initially watched the state burn down too.
“It is a very heavy impact,” Rama said. “But with every fire, we do get an opportunity and we do still have families to provide for.”
This isn’t the first time this year that construction workers have had to make tricky compromises between their health and income. Walter Robinson, the construction representative of the Laborer’s International Union of North America, said that COVID-19 also put workers into difficult positions.
“There were issues of them feeling protected.” Robinson said. “They knew that they had to go back to work, but they still wanted to be protected and contractors had to figure out how to do that when this pandemic was so new to all of us.”
In fact, in March members within the construction industry fought for their work to be deemed “essential” when the pandemic urged for a mandated stay-at-home order. Workers pressured state and local governments for their work to be permitted amidst the pandemic, and in April, Governor Gavin Newsom updated construction worker statuses to essential.
“It was disheartening to see members that have been infected, recover from the virus and then return back to work because they had to make ends meet,” Rama said.
After this fight to be able to work and continuously seeing COVID-19’s impact on the nation and having to deal with it first-hand, Rama said that the wildfires were simply the icing on top of a difficult year.
As the pandemic helped cancel building projects and nearly 40 percent of construction workers were laid off because it, Robinson said that workers in the industry have prioritized their work over potential danger more than ever in 2020.
Lisa Freedman director of project development for Wright Contracting said that construction is a highly specialized profession that has many protections and resources that employers have given to workers.
She says that some instances are harder to protect construction workers from than others though.
“Everybody’s a little worried about another big fire at all times,” Freedman said. “The unexpected always stays in the back of our minds and so we always have to stay vigilante.”
She says that her team, and the industry as a whole, generally works hard to prevent unsafe working conditions with both the consideration of COVID-19 and the fatal wildfires.
Wright Contracting is located in Santa Rosa, California where there historically have been many fires.
But despite individual efforts like Lisa’s at her contracting group to keep workers safe, federal cutbacks on safety have allowed 2020s predicaments to seriously put construction workers in jeopardy.
Under President Donald Trump’s administration, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has widely scaled back on safety measures. Some of which have contributed to some of the highest workplace fatalities of the agency’s histories according to the Center for Public Integrity.
“We put ourself in a vulnerable position, us construction workers,” Rama said. “It’s dangerous and unpredictable but there will be pride in other buildings and other structures to build in the future.”
The Oakland builder says that wildfire season to him is a time to grieve over the experiences and memories lost by fires. Although he said that this year has been devastating for him in many ways, he also said that it’s shown him how to persevere and looks forward to the next year.