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Some Domestic Workers Head Toward California's Fires, Unaware Of Evacuation Orders


About 200,000 acres have burned in the most recent California fires. Most are in rural or low-population areas. But the Getty Fire was in a high-income area in LA. And while people were scrambling to leave their homes inside the fire zone, others were heading towards the fires because they didn't know the neighborhood had been evacuated. These were mostly domestic workers - people who cut lawns, clean homes.

And joining us now is Brittny Mejia. She's a reporter at the LA Times. Welcome.

BRITTNY MEJIA: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.

CHANG: So I understand the way you first found this story is that you were driving around looking at how evacuation efforts were going. Tell me what happened.

MEJIA: Yeah. So I was in Brentwood. I'd gotten sent out around 4 in the morning to cover the fires, and I happened to see a taxi pulling into a neighborhood that was under a mandatory evac. And I stopped because I was like, this is bizarre. I don't really know why someone's coming to this neighborhood that's been evacuated.

CHANG: Right.

MEJIA: And I started speaking to the woman who got out of the car. She told me, you know, I'm the housekeeper here. You know, I'm pretty sure my bosses are home. Nobody called me.

CHANG: And as far as you could tell, was there anybody inside the house at the time, or did it seem like the residents of that house had already evacuated?

MEJIA: So I had been driving around already, and mostly everyone was gone. The streets were just quiet. You know, I told her, I really don't think they're here. I want to just give you a ride. Like, I - can I just give you a ride?

CHANG: And at that moment, Brittny, what was sort of the calculation going on in your head?

MEJIA: So I immediately called my editor. When I was waiting for her, she rang the bell. And I was like, I have to take this woman out of this area.

CHANG: Yeah.

MEJIA: I can't just leave her here. And my editor immediately was like, yes, like, you should do that.

CHANG: So you end up driving this woman out of the fire zone. And tell me what you saw as you were driving along.

MEJIA: As we drove, I'm seeing all these other workers that are heading in the opposite direction, and we actually end up bumping into someone who is a housekeeper. And Carmen, the woman I'm with, is asking, like, where are you going? And she was like, oh, I'm going to try and get in.


MEJIA: And in some cases, I saw people, you know, cutting the grass or actually working outside of homes.

CHANG: Already doing their jobs.

MEJIA: Right.

CHANG: And I gather from your reporting a lot of these people were speaking to you in Spanish.

MEJIA: Yes, it was mostly Spanish. And when I was communicating with them or even when we would get their bosses on the phone, you know, I would be translating, or they would say, can you help me send a message to my boss? Like, how do I say, like, are you home in English? And so I was just trying to help facilitate the conversations...

CHANG: Right.

MEJIA: ...Because there was clearly a breakdown.

CHANG: What was your sense about why these workers were consistently filing back into the fire zone, trying to report to their jobs, even though there was a mandatory evacuation order? Is it because they were told by their boss to show up no matter what, or they just didn't understand that there was this evacuation order?

MEJIA: They just didn't understand. I mean, in some of the cases, once people got to the area and they started to realize - like, even in one case, this woman still wanted to try and go because she was like, I just took a week off to go to Mexico, and I can't afford to miss another day.


MEJIA: Another woman, you know, had taken the bus and then realized when she was there. And she was like, well, maybe because they haven't called me, they want me to help them evacuate. Like, maybe they want me to help them pack up their house.

CHANG: I just want you to help us understand what you think happened, why there was such a severe communication failure between employers and employees during these mandatory evacuation orders.

MEJIA: I just don't think it's on the list of things that you check off, for the most part - at least, that's what I was finding with the housekeepers, the gardeners that I was interviewing. None of them had gotten a text. None of them had gotten a call. And they were still coming late into the afternoon, you know, hours after the evacuations had happened.

And I just think - I mean, you know, a lot of people in this neighborhood have these employees. They have gardeners. They have housekeepers. It should be somewhere in their mindset or on the list of things, you know, they should be doing after they evacuate.

CHANG: Brittny Mejia of the LA Times, thank you very much for joining us today.

MEJIA: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.