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United Farm Workers union logo. The farm workers were not affiliated. Creative Commons

On May 2, as the Camarillo Springs wildfire grew to envelop 28,000 acres in flames, at least 15 workers at Crisalida Farms in Oxnard, Calif. decided to leave the fields where they picked strawberries and seek shelter from bad air caused by the nearby blaze. A foreman at the farms tried to stop them, telling them if they left they would no longer have a job when they returned, and when they returned to the fields on May 3, they found the foreman had not been bluffing: the farm had fired them. The farm workers then turned to the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, of which they are not members, to file a complaint.

After the workers contacted the UFW, representative Lauro Barrajas from the union contacted the farm and met with its management. According to Barrajas, he reminded the farm management of the old union rule that "no worker shall work under conditions where they feel his life or health is in danger."

"The smoke was very bad," Barrajas said. "That's no doubt about that."

One of the workers told NBC News that ashes from the blaze were falling onto them as they picked, and that the air had been hard to breathe. Air quality in the region was at dangerously poor levels at the time. Oxnard is just 11 miles south of Camarillo.

In a statement to Telemundo, a representative from the farm's upper management said that the workers had left without permission while orders still needed to be filled. The company offered to pay them for the hours they'd worked.

The company later offered to rehire the 15 workers who had been seen off, but only one of them accepted, opting instead to find work at other farms.

In 2012, the state of California was sued by a public legal council group for allegedly having systematically failed to protect farm workers from excessive heat when on the job.

"At least 28 farm workers have died from causes potentially related to heat since regulation was first approved in 2005," the council wrote in a statement then, referring to a law which obliges farms to provide shade, water and rest to workers.

In the summer of 2011, the UFW recorded more than 75 complaints about serious illnesses produced by excessive heat in the fields in which pickers work.

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