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Devastating Photos Show Wildfire’s Toll on a California Cannabis Farm

October 11, 2017
Wildfire burned through part of a medical cannabis grow owned and managed by the San Francisco dispensary SPARC. (Photo courtesty of Erich Pearson, SPARC)
Erich Pearson, chief executive officer of the San Francisco Patient Resource Center, was startled awake at 1:30 a.m. Monday to the hellish sight of a firestorm raining embers onto his sprawling cannabis farm in California’s wine country.

“The entire sky was glowing,” Pearson recounted in an interview with Leafly. “I could see orange and dots of bright red. There were multiple fires all over the mountain.”

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The farm, near the Sonoma County village of Glen Ellen, produces cannabis for four medical marijuana dispensaries in Pearson’s SPARC network, including two in San Francisco and others in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

“You could feel the heat through the car windows.”
Erich Pearson, San Francisco Patient Resource Center

Pearson’s only option was to get out alive—and quickly.

“We packed the car. We drove down to the bottom of the hill, and the entire neighborhood across the street”—the Trinity Oaks subdivision in Glen Ellen—“was on fire,” he said. “You could feel the heat through the car windows.

“There was nothing I could do for the farm.”

A truck was among the many losses suffered by producers at the Sonoma County cannabis farm hit by wildfire this week. (Photo courtesy of Erich Pearson, SPARC)

In recent days, California has been charred by 22 wildfires that have burned nearly 200,000 acres, destroyed more than 3,500 buildings, and killed at least 21 people. As the infernos continue to tear through the dry landscape, they’re also causing untold damage to cannabis farms at the worst time possible—in the heart of the fall harvest season.

The flames devoured prized cannabis farms in Sonoma County and surrounding areas, causing devastating economic losses by scorching plants with fire or fouling them with toxic smoke and ash.

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“I think we can honestly be looking at hundreds of millions of dollars in losses in terms of crop damage and property loss,” said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association. “It’s that significant.”

Cannabis industry officials estimate there are anywhere between 3,000 and 7,000 marijuana farms in Sonoma County, where the state’s most damaging blaze, called the Tubbs Fire, has taken at least 11 lives and burned more than 28,000 acres. Dozens of others are reported missing. Nearby Mendocino County, where two wildfires have burned more than 35,000 acres and killed three people, is home to an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 marijuana farms.

“Any airborne contamination is going to stick to those buds.”
Hezekiah Allen, California Growers Association

With massive evacuations and residents uncertain on when they can return, Allen said the Growers Association so far has been unable to determine how many farms have been destroyed. He said the ultimate figure may only be a few dozen. But thousands more could suffer catastrophic crop damage, he added, with plants ruined by the thick smoke blowing over multiple Northern California counties.

“If you’re just talking piles of ashes, I think we may be looking at 30 or 40 farms” destroyed, Allen said. “But the broader regional impact will have thousands of farms seeing reduced values, with some having to destroy their crop. Any airborne contamination is going to stick to those buds. And there’s a lot of toxins in that smoke.”

Goats wander through a fire-ravaged cannabis farm in Sonoma County run by SPARC. (Photo courtesy of Erich Pearson, SPARC)

Pearson made it back to his farm after the fire burned through. All the wooden structures on the property, including 60,000 square feet of processing rooms, some packed with drying cannabis, were destroyed. Some goats that survived the blaze were wandering in front of a flame-mangled metal storage facility.

Some greenhouses, surrounded by fire-protecting gravel buffers, survived. Much of the SPARC farm’s outdoor cultivation was scorched by flames.

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“We’re still assessing what we’ve lost,” Pearson said. “Everyone is reacting differently to the situation. I’m in a fight mode. I’m asking, ‘What can we do as a community? What can we do to help our neighbors?

“In Sonoma County, this will be a huge, huge impact on the economy.”

Pearson said he would turn to other cannabis growers in the SPARC dispensaries’ network of medical marijuana patients in order to supply his stores.

Given California’s vast cannabis production, the fires are not expected to create serious shortages at the Golden State’s medical marijuana dispensaries or for cannabis stores due to begin selling for adult recreational use in early 2018.

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But many farmers will be looking to salvage what they can. Once glistening buds that would have been trimmed for dispensary displays may be sold on the cheap as raw material for processing into cannabis oils for vaporizing or edibles.

Pearson said he may try to repurpose his greenhouse and surviving cannabis into oils through a CO2 extraction method in hopes of cleansing away smoky residues—if possible.

In Humboldt County, Kristin Nevedal, chairwoman of the International Cannabis Farmers Association, said concerns over smoke-contaminated crops extend to farms far from the immediate fire areas.

“There are people still on their properties who haven’t face a mandatory evacuation, but there is still so much smoke in those areas,” she said. “If your crop is at risk, you can potentially harvest. But where do you take it? Unless you have a completely enclosed building without any smoke, it will be really hard to ensure your harvest” against contamination.

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A Long Road to Recovery

Another major challenge is that cannabis farmers, unlike other agricultural producers, generally don’t have access to crop insurance. Those burned out may be able to rebuild destroyed houses, but not replace the lost revenue they needed to pay the mortgage.

“Folks aren’t just losing their farms, they’re losing everything they own,” said Amanda Reiman, vice-president of community relations at Flow Kana, a Mendocino County cannabis distribution company that provides production and marketing for small farmers. “There is a lot of trauma going on, and we want to help them through this crisis.”

“It’s the worst time of the year this could possibly happen.”
Casey O'Neill , Mendocino County Growers Alliance

Various funds have been set up to generate donations for marijuana farmers affected by the fire, including a “MendoFire: CalGrowers Wildfire Relief Fund,” and a “Farmers Helping Farmers” Gofundme page.

Allen and Nevedal said their organizations may seek waivers in permitting fees from local governments that have licensed cannabis farms under California’s marijuana regulations in an effort to ease the financial burden on affected farms.

With high costs of permit fees and property improvements to meet state rules for water use and environmental protection, “a lot of them have already spent very significant sums of money” to operate in the legal market, she said.

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“It is pretty bad right now,” said Casey O’Neill, a cannabis farmer and chairman of the Mendocino County Growers Alliance. “People are losing their gardens, their houses, and their farms … before going to market. It’s the worst time of the year this could possibly happen.

“It’s a very hard time for this community.”

Peter Hecht's Bio Image

Peter Hecht

Peter Hecht, former political writer and Los Angeles bureau chief for the Sacramento Bee, has been reporting on cannabis since 2009. His coverage has been honored for explanatory reporting in the "Best of the West" journalism awards and earned an Excellence in Journalism prize from the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Hecht is the author of the book “Weed Land: Inside America’s Marijuana Epicenter and How Pot Went Legit.”

View Peter Hecht's articles

  • Nathaniel Smith

    i guess everyone was high at least while it was burning 😉

    • bong donkey

      stupid!

      • Nathaniel Smith

        let me say how i really feel. california is literally burning down. we have nothing but satanists and rapists in hollywood, giving someone HIV punishment is less than a parking ticket, and they welcome terrorists and anyone who wants to cross the boarder, except us flyover country.. so yea, who could really be talking about “weed casualties” after Los Vegas… but i was trying to mask my real feelings with humor..

        • Open Minds

          Nathaniel please take your medicine, you’re acting up again.

    • lovingc

      Ignorant!

  • Marumiyu Moriame

    living in a burn zone you will get burnt. moden civ fail

    • E.L. Bl/Du

      marumimyu: Calif is NOT a burn zone. Global warming has caused SEVERE DROUGHT for the past 6 years. Both species of The giant and costal REDWOODS are DYING! Calif grows the MOST FOOD for our country. SO chill your attitude. Its poor farming practices that are killing our fish and wildlife with chemical fertilizers causing dead zones. Yes, we are KILLING our planet, this is a PERFECT example of OUR stupidity and ignorance with a lack of willingness to change our practices. We ALL need to do our part to make change and save what is remaining.

      • Tommy Salami

        California IS a burn zone and the Giant Redwood actually requires fire to reproduce. Pinecones don’t drop seeds until they’ve been heated, and the fire clears ground cover that enables germination. Giant Redwoods are incredibly fire resistant, and while lesser trees burn the Giants get ready for new growth.

        • E.L. Bl/Du

          its a BURNED zone now. And its VErY difficult for redwoods to burn btw. The internal pump stops working when there is long term drought, it cannot maintain the pressure of its water that gets to the tips 300 ft tall.. it cannot produce sap to protect from bugs and fire in a drought. But sounds to me like its everyday stuff for you, even tho its the largest fire in history they have had. It would seem a bit more compassionate if you didnt just keep throwing out criticizms, but thats what trolls do. Extremely insensitive to all who died or lost everything. please dont reply back again to me. You learned well from our current president how to deflect and be a dick. This will be my end to this conversation with you. (unless a troll like you HAS to get the last word in like a 12 year old.)

      • Auryan

        Time to decentralize our food chain…back to growing more locally instead of dependence on huge areas like California. This is also a wake up call for how we live on planet earth. At least to take stock in our current practices and see if there is room for a better way.

      • bong donkey

        We Californians actually had a wet year early on.But this time of year everything is fire prone.Some of these comments are ignorant as fuck!!

  • Alan479 Martin

    These fires are too suspicious considering the excessive MJ losses. We have had to put up with HAARP hurricanes and now this.

    • Jackson Shredder

      I was thinking the same thing Alan.

      • bong donkey

        Suspicious or not,the fires are devastating on a nuclear level.It is sad,especially for Californians.

        • Jackson Shredder

          I agree. I’m used to them here but never like this. This is the worst I’ve ever seen. The people that have lost everything not to mention the lives lost are horrible.

    • Tommy Salami

      Oh it’s suspicious alright, and there’s a single actor in all of this: PG&E. Their poorly maintained lines snapped in several locations during high winds and started all of this. Check out the map in this article.

      http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/10/10/pge-power-lines-linked-to-wine-country-fires/

      • LarryM792Nato

        I don’t like your name. It’s insulting.

      • Alan479 Martin

        Numerous individuals were seen driving around the areas before the fires throwing flares out from their cars. PG&E my ass.

      • Alan479 Martin

        A number of individuals were seen in the area throwing flares into the MJ areas from their cars. Also the the flame retardant government planes were reputed to have released an inert mixture that did basically nothing. PG&E my ass.

  • Sandy Weaver

    I’m sad about that but my heart soul and prayers are for people who lost their homes and the animals.

  • Fun Please

    OMG

  • Clydene Cannon

    And, for those who are not burned out the smoke is becoming dangerous for us to breath the air. Lots of people are going to be sick from this.

  • David Alan

    GOD SAVE THE SEEDS . ..☆ *

  • Silverado

    Jeff Sessions may not have personally started those fires but they’ve done the job he’s not been able to do when it comes to getting in the way of legal cannabis in northern California. Something he does not approve of. FEMA will be of no help either as they’re more apt to rebuild something like expensive homes that’ve been destroyed numerous times previously in a hurricane zone than help some poor and struggling cannabis farmer in the wine country of NorCal. Jeff wouldn’t pee on or help those people if they were on fire, as we see in this article. But he’d sure like to arrest them. And while most would say this was a terrible event, Jeff and Co are back there clapping loudly that they approve of this…natural event that eliminates or damages something they do not approve of. And surely would call this inspired by God or some drivel that’s similar. Am I wrong about Jeff Sessions?? I don’t think so…

  • Kristofor Gullickson

    I can not wait until each state with the Forest and Agriculture or National Parks realizes that a simple well kept “Fire Lane” zigzagging, crisscrossing, up and down so that these fires go out before devasting everything, it will save lives. WTH is wrong with people. I would go out there and do it myself. Who agrees, and why has that issue never been brought up? All these years we see the same crap!!!!! One Simple Solution……..sorry, but it is true

  • lovingc

    Well there goes some of the over production Jeffy was worried about. I wonder how much was actually lost?

  • lovingc

    I had hopped the rains that have been happening would have helped more than they have. The loss of homes and lives is something the survivors of the hurricanes and flooding can relate to. Bless you all.

  • Alan479 Martin

    A number of individuals were seen in the area throwing flares into the MJ areas from their cars. Also the the flame retardant government planes were reputed to have released an inert mixture that did basically nothing.