Farmworkers tend to crops as wildfire smoke covers the hillside off Spreckels Road in King City. Thousands of respirators were distributed last week to local ag companies. (Photo by Jon Allred)

SALINAS VALLEY — Numerous area leaders recently came together to distribute thousands of N95 respirators to protect agricultural workers, as ongoing air quality problems due to smoke from nearby wildfires caused essential workers in the outdoors to be in danger.

Last week the Air Quality Index rating for Salinas Valley reached “very unhealthy” levels, meaning the particle density in the air had become hazardous from the thousands of acres burning. Health officials advised those who work outside to wear N95 respirator masks.

Monterey County Board of Supervisors, including Chris Lopez and Luis Alejo, Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales and agriculture industry leaders all joined to make a request for the needed respirators. The request led to the masks being used to protect the critical local workforce.

“This is the same group that created the advisory for agricultural worker protection during the Covid-19 crisis on the Central Coast of California,” Gonzales said.

According to the Monterey Bay Air Resources District, which monitors air quality for the region, communities in the Salinas Valley — including King City, Greenfield, Soledad and Gonzales — experienced moderate to hazardous conditions due to smoke impacts. The district said these conditions could last for a couple weeks.

“Air quality will be variable and unpredictable as conditions change depending on wind and fire activity,” said Richard A. Stedman, air pollution control officer, in an Aug. 18 advisory.

Residents were advised to stay indoors during the days with worst air quality, but agricultural workers, being essential workers in a vital part of the economy and food chain, were required to be outdoors to tend to growing or harvesting crops.

While cloth face coverings offer protection against Covid-19, they do not provide protection against smoke particles, California Department for Public Health said.

Anyone who must be outdoors for long periods in areas with heavy smoke and ash should consider wearing an N95 respirator mask, health officials suggested.

County leaders, along with a partnership that included the Coastal Growers Association, Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, Monterey County Farm Bureau and the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association, secured 100,000 N95 respirators through a request placed with California’s Office of Emergency Services.

Last week the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office distributed an existing stock of 10,000 N95 respirators to the agricultural industry to help protect agricultural workers from wildfire smoke. Before this, the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, in partnership with county supervisors and ag industry leaders, distributed 2.4 million free surgical masks to protect the essential agricultural workforce from Covid-19.

The additional, limited supply of respirators will be made available to agricultural businesses through the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office and will be distributed based on need. The respirators are available for free to growers and farm labor contractors for their essential agricultural workers.

Agricultural businesses can reach out to the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office at 831-759-7340 or at [email protected] to request masks.

Additional reporting by Ryan Cronk.

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Sean Roney is a freelance reporter for King City Rustler and Salinas Valley Tribune, a unified publication of Greenfield News, Soledad Bee and Gonzales Tribune. He covers general news for the Salinas Valley communities in South Monterey County.


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