California Wildfires Threaten Thousands of Cannabis Farms

Napa County firefighter Jason Sheumann sprays water on a home as he battles flames from a wildfire Monday, Oct. 9, 2017, in Napa, Calif. Wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through Northern California sending residents on a headlong flight to safety through smoke and flames as homes burned. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

A cluster of California wildfires north of San Francisco have so far devoured more than 70,000 acres and killed at least 11 people, according to official reports. And though the infernos have come to be known as the “Wine Country fires,” they stand to destroy tens of millions of dollars’ worth of cannabis gardens on the outskirts of the state’s famed Emerald Triangle.

It’s one of the most devastating series of fires in recent California history, and Gov. Jerry Brown has already declared a state of emergency in affected counties. Numerous growers have been affected by mandatory evacuation orders, and some farms have already been destroyed.

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“These fires have been catastrophic for the cannabis cultivator community in the region,” Benjamin Bradley, operations director for the California Cannabis Industry Association, told Leafly on Tuesday. “We’ve had dozens of CCIA members alone report total loss of both crop and homes.”

The group was still receiving reports on Tuesday evening, Bradley added, estimating that the full extent of the damage would include hundreds to thousands of acres of grow space. “I’ve seen a few images of farmers who have returned to their operations to find nothing but ash and soot,” he said.

“A 40 acre grow could see a loss of $32M in product.”
Prof. John Torrens, Syracuse University

Citing county surveys, David Downs of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that there could be anywhere from 3,000 to 9,000 cannabis gardens in Sonoma County alone. “County revenue from cannabis are unknown,” the paper says, “but likely total in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.”

At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said that responders—at least 20 agencies are pitching in—are still scrambling to contain the fires. A curfew has been imposed in Santa Rosa, and Sonoma authorities are urging residents to stay out of areas that have been evacuated. Mobile phone service has also been affected.

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Fires have also affected residents and businesses in Napa, Mendocino, and Yuba counties, according to local reports. Dozens have been injured, and more than 1,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed. Officials are asking individuals to report missing persons to the appropriate authorities. An emergency hotline is available at 1-707-565-3856.

 

Our community has suffered so much. We have all been touched by this tragedy. One of our Team members lost their home, their crop and everything in the fire. We have created a gofundme for them to allow them to get back in their feet and have some resources to buy the necessities that they need. If you are in a position to help out in any way, we would be so grateful for any amount of support. Link is in our bio and on Facebook. https://www.gofundme.com/sam-and-erins-fire-fund 🙏🏻 You are all in our thoughts and our prayers! 💓 #tubbsfire #sonomacannabis #sonomacounty #sonomastrong #socostrong #sonomacountyfire #gofundme #sonomacounty #fires #sonomagrown #cannabiscommunity #sonoma #napa #staysafe #weed #cannabis #prayforsonomacounty #winecounty #wineandweed

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The wildfires are expected to do tens of millions of dollars in damage to cannabis crops. “We have a lot of people who have lost their farms in the last 36 hours, and their homes,” Tawnie Logan, chair of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, told the Chronicle, adding that she knows of a $2 million Santa Rosa crop that was reduced to ash on Sunday night.

John Torrens, a professor of entrepreneurial practice at Syracuse University, noted that the fires comes just as much of the cannabis was nearing harvest.

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“October is the official end to the outdoor growing season. While many harvests may be underway, a considerable number of growers are in the pre- and early stages of their harvest,” he said in an email. “Some grows are as large as 40 acres. With average price per pound of cannabis being $1,000, an acre of marijuana can yield as much as $800,000 (compared to $644 for corn, $400 for soybeans and $232 for wheat). A 40 acre grow could see a loss of $32M in product.”

Bradley, of the California Cannabis Industry Association, said community support would be key to the recovery effort. “With a long road ahead we expect a lot of support from the cannabis community to get these farms back in the ground and established,” he said.

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‘More and More Confirmed Losses’

While Santa Rosa has taken the brunt of the fire damage, there are other fires throughout the region. Damage has been reported in Mendocino as well as Sonoma County, said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association. He’s heard from numerous members of the organization who’ve reported losing their greenhouses, farms, and even their homes.

Even if crops do survive, they'll likely be damaged from exposure to smoke and ash.

Many of the fires have ravaged high-density neighborhoods, said Allen, so the loss of life, in addition to the final tally of destroyed homes and property, is expected to be “pretty surprising.”

“We’re definitely seeing more and more confirmed losses throughout the course of the day,” he said.

Even if crops do survive, they’ll likely be damaged from exposure to smoke and ash, said Allen. It’s harvest season, and the plants that are still in the ground typically contain a lot of oil and are very sticky. This means they’ll trap both the smell and the compounds present in the smoke. It could take considerable work by farmers to realize value from those plants.

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While damage to property and loss of product are large concerns for cannabis growers in the area, Allen emphasized the preservation of life remains the priority and the most important message to spread. With fires continuing to rage and a growing list of evacuation orders, the most important thing right now is for people to stay safe and do their best to look out for each other, he said. Those of particular concern are the seasonal workers, who may be in the area trimming for the harvest and who are likely unfamiliar with the area’s backroads and escape routes.

It’s going to be a “long road to recovery” for many in the area, Allen said. The executive board of the California Growers Association has decided to launch a crowdfunding relief fund to help cultivators in the area get back on their feet by next spring. Many have spent their life savings on their grow in advance of legalization, he said, and now, with only a few months before legal sales begin, they will be left with no money, no crops, and no eligibility for emergency aid.

“They’re really between a rock and a hard place,” Allen said.

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Insurance Woes

Unlike the numerous wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties, cannabis growers don’t have access to conventional business insurance. So-called surplus-lines insurers do offer limited coverage, but costs far exceed more mainstream plans.

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California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said last month that state officials are “very aggressively” working to persuade major commercial insurance companies to work with state-legal cannabis businesses. “We actually have one admitted commercial carrier that has filed a commercial product in California,” he said, though coverage will likely come too late to help farmers affected by the Wine Country fires.

Sonoma County officials have announced they’ll provide further updates on Tuesday evening.

Not the First Time

Facing prolonged drought, Northern California has been hit hard by fires in recent years. Around this time last year, a fire that began south of San Jose tore through cannabis gardens, destroying some crops and covering others in a layer of ash.

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