California Marijuana and Wildfire: Here’s the Latest

Published on August 8, 2018 · Last updated February 24, 2022
California's historic wildfire year is threatening cannabis cultivation heartlands — again. (Josh Edelson/AP)
California's historic wildfire year is threatening cannabis cultivation heartlands — again. (Josh Edelson/AP)

Pray for rain.

Fueled by heavy timber in steep canyons, 18 wildfires have now burned a combined 600,000 acres of California, with the biggest ripping through cannabis country, torching cherished homes, budding gardens, packed drying rooms, and ways of life. The fire season could run until the first heavy rains in December.

The Golden State grows an estimated five times the amount of cannabis it consumes. It’s the country’s number one domestic producer of the plant, at 13.5 million pounds per year, state economists estimate. So local supplies—and thus prices—should not be affected.

The traditional marijuana heartland of Emerald Triangle counties—Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity—remain generally unscathed. But cannabis-growing happens statewide now, and the cultivation epicenters of Lake and Shasta County face mandatory evacuation orders today. There’s scattered reports of rural gardens destroyed, and ominous smoke hangs above the region.

The fires further endanger the future of America’s cannabis heartland, which is already stressed by lack of access to capital, labor, and markets.

The region’s sheer rugged wilderness, which first attracted pot growers in the ’70s, is the exact thing fanning the infernos, the biggest of which are the Mendocino Complex Fire and the Carr Fire.Recreational Cannabis – Now With Lab Testing!

Mendocino Complex Fire

Composed of two separate blazes, the Ranch and the River fire, the Mendocino Complex Fire is the largest in state history. It’s scorched 300,086 acres and threatens more than 10,000 structures, causing mandatory evacuations in parts of three counties.

Amanda Reiman, an Emerald Triangle resident and the vice president of community relations at outdoor flower brand Flow Kana, described fire concerns as dying down in the Triangle. “We have no knowledge of farms being lost in Mendocino. We had a few farms evacuate last week, but they have all been allowed to return,” Reiman said.

“Haven’t heard any reports yet, expecting I will soon,” said Hezekiah Allen of the California Growers Association. “We have some resources available if folks need help. Send them my way [and] we can see what we can do.”

“The fire has mostly moved into Lake County,” added Reiman. Homes and gardens are aflame there, and GoFundMe is filled with pleas for donations to families in the stricken region.

Among the 248 residences and structures destroyed or damaged are most certainly many more cannabis gardens. Lake County allows for outdoor gardens of up to 48 plants under local medical cannabis rules. A trio of gardeners refused to abandon their crop as flames bore down just 20 yards away this week. Firefighters had to divert an air attack on the blaze because the trio refused to leave the area, and the three were reportedly arrested and cited. Also in the area, police looking for looters reportedly arrested a migrant marijuana trimmer driving around an evacuation zone with a loaded pistol, two pounds of pot, binoculars, and a scale.

Mendocino Complex Fire Facts:

  • Acres burned: 300,086 acres
  • Days burning: 13
  • Total containment: 47%
  • Civilian injuries/fatalities: none
  • Firefighter injuries: 2
  • Structures destroyed: 116 residences / 105 other
  • Structures damaged: 12 residences / 15 other
  • Structures threatened: 10,300
  • Expected full containment: 9/1/18

Source: Cal Fire

Carr Fire Near Redding, CA

White ash fell on the state capitol over the weekend, drifting southward from the massive Carr Fire in the far north of the state, near Redding. The chilling blaze has claimed five lives, including two firefighters and two young children caught in their great-grandparents’ home. The Carr Fire started 17 days ago and rushed into the western part of the city of Redding, CA, claiming an unfathomable 1,077 homes, 22 offices and 500 outbuildings. Another 282 structures were damaged. Redding and the surrounding Shasta County is the birthplace of Alien Labs and other top state cultivators. There’s evacuations in Shasta and Trinity County today.

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Carr Fire FactBox:

  • Acres burned: 173,522 acres
  • Days burning: 17
  • Total containment: 47%
  • Civilian fatalities: 3
  • Firefighter fatalities: 2
  • Structures destroyed: 1,077 residences, 22 commercial, 500 outbuildings
  • Structures damaged: 191 residences, 26 commercial, 65 outbuildings
  • Structures threatened: 935
  • Expected full containment: unknown

Source: Cal Fire

Legalization is convulsing the Emerald Triangle, but global warming is torching it, Allen said. The state has an estimated 1.3 million dead trees, after prolonged, multiyear droughts and invasive species predation. “Fire season” in California has run year-round for years now.

“I think these fires indicate that our planet is less hospitable,” said Allen. “To try to frame it in terms of ‘move somewhere else’ is denying the scope of the problem we face as a species. Not to mention, the type [of] agriculture that takes place in ‘commercially hospitable areas’ is a driving force in these types of fires associated with desertification events.”

Compounding the Damage

California is in the middle of a historic transition of its $10 billion a year cannabis industry from an illicit market to a taxed and regulated one. Growers were already making hundred-thousand-dollar outlays to become compliant with local and state licensing. Fire as well as smoke damage adds another financial strain to transitioning cannabis businesses. Compounding the damage, the industry is largely uninsured or underinsured. This week, the state added three more insurers to the tiny, new pool of state-accredited sellers of fire insurance for crops.

“The North River Insurance Company and United States Fire Insurance Company will begin offering coverage today and White Pine Insurance Company will begin offering coverage later this month. All three insurance carriers will write surety bonds for the cannabis businesses,” Commissioner Dave Jones’ office stated.

But most rural farmers still lack these products. Up until now, the unregulated policies available cost a lot, covered little, and often didn’t pay out, insurance lawyers tell me. The first $1 million cannabis crop insurance payout for fire damage might have just occurred in April.

Still, with the state expected to produce five pounds for export for every one pound it grows here, it’ll be hard to see how the fires will do anything but temporarily arrest the slide in the price of pot.

California cannabis prices fell amid record wildfire in 2017. (Courtesy of Cannabis Benchmarks)

California cannabis prices fell amid record wildfire in 2017. (Courtesy of Cannabis Benchmarks)

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David Downs
David Downs
Leafly Senior Editor David Downs is the former Cannabis Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. He's appeared on The Today Show, and written for Scientific American, The New York Times, WIRED, Rolling Stone, The Onion A/V Club, High Times, and many more outlets. He is a 2023 judge for The Emerald Cup, and has covered weed since 2009.
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