FIGHTING FIRE WITH COMMUNITY
By September 7, the two largest fires in Washington state – the 174,000-acre Pearl Hill Fire and the 163,000-acre Cold Springs Fire – threatened the communities in which we live and work. Newspapers would later report that more than 330,000 acres burned in 24 hours. We believe it.
It is hard to describe that night – the displaced people, the smell of smoke, the sound of fire crews, and a scene from an apocalyptic movie. What we can more easily describe is how employers and employees worked together; how people relied on community to fight the fire. Here are just some examples:
Caring for employees:
We are grateful for the all-hands-on-deck efforts of our community and guest worker employees during this extraordinary time. You are all essential to the Gebbers family.
Wildfires strike the Okanogan Valley with regularity, so Gebbers Farms maintains wildfire response plans, including evacuation procedures. Evacuations are always stressful, and our employees helped this one go as smoothly as possible.
After midnight on Monday, September 7, out of concern for employee safety, we evacuated guest workers and their personal belongings to a safe location.
Guest workers from one Gebbers Farms’ housing complex were evacuated to another, where we were able to provide all displaced workers with a bed, food and hot water until they could return to their original residence two nights later. Generators supplied electricity on the second night.
Through all of this, whenever it did not pose additional risks, our employees worked to maintain the pod groupings of workers we implemented this season to reduce the risk of COVID spread.
A small group of guest workers had to overnight on a Gebbers bus on one of our properties because road closures prevented them from joining the rest of the group. They were safely moved the next morning. We felt terrible that this happened, but their safety was paramount and the sheriff suggested staying put for the night.
All guest workers have since returned to their original housing.
We also have supplemented the employees’ regular PPE with KN95 masks.
Dyer Hill during the fires taken from Brewster across the Columbia River.
Caring for each other:
Farmers can be fiercely competitive until faced with a common enemy, such as a wildfire bearing down on our communities, neighbors and all that we cherish.
When guest workers from another area fruit grower had to be evacuated and needed a safe place to overnight, they parked at our packinghouse, and we opened the wash and lunchroom facilities for their use.
When we learned that farmworkers from a third grower were evacuated to Brewster’s city park, family members personally took blankets and other supplies to them until the Red Cross could help.
There were so many examples of how people helped one another. We can’t thank fire crews, law enforcement and emergency personnel enough. They are true heroes.
Sadly, many of the communities and farming areas in which we work and live lost homes and other property. Our hearts and prayers go out to the families who were injured or lost loved ones.
The Gebbers family has lived and worked in the Okanogan Valley for six generations. Our community and our workers are vital to us, and we work hard to honor those relationships through trust, reliability, service and giving – and this year, working to limit the spread of a pandemic and helping our community recover from the fires. Together, we can do this.