When heat waves, wildfires and drought hit Oregon and Washington state

In early summer, a laborer who was laying irrigation lines at a nursery just south of Portland, Ore., Collapsed to the ground and deceas...


In early summer, a laborer who was laying irrigation lines at a nursery just south of Portland, Ore., Collapsed to the ground and deceased. His official cause of death was declared “heat related”.

It was 104 degrees – several days after the onset of a brutal heat wave the equivalent of which has become increasingly common in many parts of the country. Mussels and clams cooked in their shells along the Washington coast. Record temperatures and strong winds fueled one of the biggest forest fires in the USA.

Drought, mega-fires and heat waves are sweeping the Pacific Northwest as the effects of climate change alter the landscape. They have forced farm owners, field workers and state regulators to navigate new and extreme conditions.

But visits to several farms in Rogue Valley, Oregon and southern Washington over the past month have shown that the response can often seem improvised and at times inadequate.

Policy makers in Oregon and Washington recently established safety rules to protect workers. Immediately after the June heatwave, Oregon Governor Kate Brown ordered the state’s occupational health and safety agency to adopt emergency rules for any workplace where conditions could lead to heat-related illness.

The rules, which went into effect on August 9, require employers to provide access to shade and cool drinking water on farms and other outdoor locations when temperatures reach 80 degrees, with additional requirements to provide more breaks and periodic wellness checks when it reaches 90 degrees.

The rules also require that employers who provide temporary accommodation for field workers, like those with H-2A farm visas, to keep rooms at 78 degrees or less. Washington state created similar emergency rules to deal with extreme weather this year, joining Minnesota and California, which have also imposed thermal safety rules applicable to farms in recent years.

The new ground protections in the Northwest may appear to be there: plastic benches roasting in the sun, retractable tents for shade, drinks laid out in children’s pools.

Farms have also started shifts that operate at odd hours or at night to combat the heat.

The Oregon Farm Bureau, an industry group, backed the new rules, noting that many of its farmers already enforce safety measures that include access to shade, water and extra breaks in their lives. firm. But the group also said passing all the rules has been difficult as they came into effect in the middle of the harvest season.

“At some point there is a breaking point in terms of rules and regulations and natural disasters,” said Anne Marie Moss, spokesperson for the group. “We need more federal and state government programs to keep farms sustainable. “

Workers at a southern Oregon farm, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal from their employer, this week described cramped living conditions in temporary housing that made it difficult to escape the external heat.

In one unit, with little protection from the elements, the windows were fully covered to keep heat and light out. In a 20-square-foot room with six bunk beds stacked in rows, small fans were attached to the beds with pieces of fabric.

Forest fires have also generated some of the worst air quality in the countryside. This week, workers at Medford worked in temperatures of 94 degrees with an air quality index of 154, a level considered unhealthy according to federal standards.

Oregon’s new emergency rules require employers to provide masks that block out very fine particles to workers in the field when the air quality index reaches 100.

The dangers to air quality and heat are magnified by the continued risk of a coronavirus pandemic. The Medford area has experienced one of the highest growth rates in Covid case in the USA.

A vineyard worker in Medford, who asked to be identified only as Beatriz due to her precarious status as a migrant worker from Mexico, said conditions on the ground had recently become unusually harsh. She noted that although her employer provides workers with water, there is little shade for shelter during her 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. shifts.

The heat and smoke from the forest fires worries him, but not because of health problems. Beatriz, 38, like many others, is paid for what she can choose. “The grape is lost with the smoke,” she said. “It also affects our salary, because we are not paid for bad grapes. “

Some farm owners have wondered if they should be in business. Instead of picking pears, the folks at Meyer Orchards in Medford cut down trees this week, dismantling a farm that had been operating for over a century.

Oregon, like much of the West, is in the grip of drought. Large parts of the state have exceptionally low water levels, according to the United States Drought Monitor, including the river valley where the Meyer Orchard is located. The outlook is not promising either, according to forecasters.

“There has never been such a severe drought,” said Kurt Meyer, who is the fourth generation to run the orchard. “After 111 years, we didn’t really have a choice. You cannot cultivate without water.

The orchard spans 115 acres and Mr. Meyer estimates it costs up to $ 350,000 a year to grow the fruit. This year, he said, there is no return on that money.

“Industry will have to go where there is water,” Meyer said. “I no longer see Rogue Valley as a large farming community. “

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Newsrust - US Top News: When heat waves, wildfires and drought hit Oregon and Washington state
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