Wildfires leave behind a checkerboard of fate: Here the firefighters saved a house. There an orchard burned. Here landowners cleared away brush. There a tenant lacked the money to mow.

Sometimes, the destruction’s causes are clear, but sometimes what is saved and why remains mysterious. People living close to the land know nature can seem inscrutable, and nowhere is that more true than in cannabis country.

Noah Cornell, a Northern California cannabis farmer, knows this too well. His home, where his now-six-year old son was born, as well as his cannabis farm with an estimated 1,200 pound-harvest in the fields has all burned to the ground this summer in one of the worst wildfire seasons in California history. It’s being called the “new normal.” The 39-year-old Pittsburgh native talks about his garden with the slow, considered deliberation of someone discussing their life’s work. He pushes his longish brown hair out of his eyes, and points to a single surviving cannabis plant in his garden, surrounded by smoke and ash from the largest wildfire in California history.

“It’s going to be hard for some of these folks to make it.”
Fiona Ma, California Board of Equalization

“This one in particular is the real survivor—Maui OG. It’s one of our craft strains, so it won’t add up to much, but we’re happy. It feels good to have it here.”

Outside the garden sits the skeleton of a charred farm truck, though somehow Cornell’s water tank and a small garden shed he built still stand. He saved his tractor by driving it into a field just before evacuating.

A three-hour drive into the wilderness north of San Francisco, the crumbling foundations of Cornell’s destroyed home overlook a valley that was once rolling golden hills of chaparral but is now dusty, gray ash. Cornell’s Aster Farms sits on 80 acres just past the Mendocino–Lake county line, and a giant smoke plume is still visible to the northeast, in the Mendocino National Forest: The Ranch Fire, which had burned for three weeks and consumed 300,000 acres, ultimately reaching 410,000.

On the day I visit, sheriffs have lifted most mandatory evacuations, but the smoke persists. The annual outdoor growing season, which runs from spring to fall,  is nearly over. Most growers are making harvest plans. Yet Cornell is starting over again like it’s spring. He arrived at 7 a.m. today in his farm uniform—dusty t-shirt and Carhartt work pants—to water his new juvenile plants before the midday heat. It takes two hours to hand-water them. All the irrigation lines have melted.

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The New Normal

The California wildfires of 2018 are hitting at the worst possible time for cannabis’ heartland growers, who say they are already running low on cash from paying new taxes, plus permitting fees, all while making mandatory upgrades to farms.

The famed “Emerald Triangle” of Trinity, Mendocino, and Humboldt counties gifted the world modern cannabis, but it’s failing to adapt to that world. Local counties are slow to issue legal cannabis farming permits. Small farms are increasingly unable to comply with hundreds of pages of regulations, or compete in a commodity market of falling prices. For many this year, a wildfire will be the last straw. And more wildfires are most certainly coming, because the climate has changed.

(Josh Bowers for Leafly)

Their causes are still under investigation, but the Ranch and River fires began in Mendocino County on July 27, almost simultaneously and about 10 miles apart. From their initial small sparks, the two fires quickly grew to become the “Mendocino Complex,” which tore through four counties, vaporizing nearly a half-million acres of private and public wildland as well as 280 homes and businesses, killing one person and injuring three. For so-called Mendo, this was the second time in a year a fire had demolished homes and threatened lives. In Lake it was more like the sixth, though it’s becoming hard to keep count.

Fire season now runs year-round in California. Climate change, plus a century of deferred wildland management, have created a situation where the Emerald Triangle rests inside the state’s largest tinder box. The more remote mountainsides, where cannabis gardens once hid, are often the hardest to fit into new regulations and the most vulnerable to fires. Rugged, back-to-land, multi-generational farmers living on solar power serve as volunteer firefighters, but they’re woefully outmatched in forests with millions of trees dead from drought and infestation.

Fiona Ma, a California tax official, visited during the fires on the day her bill to increase cannabis businesses’ access to banking had failed. “I’m concerned for the small growers who have been here, who have been pioneers,” she said. “With all the regulations and increased taxes and fees, it’s going to be hard for some of these folks to make it.”

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Challenges Stack Up

Rural cannabis farmers like roughing it, but it’s getting really rough.

  • In Potter Valley, I spoke with cultivators who were evacuated for weeks, some of whom faced fires for the second time in a year.
  • At one intersection, I watched old farmers drive off with horse trailers full of cannabis plants.
  • A neighboring pig farmer said growers had cut through his fields at midnight to avoid the roadblock and rescue their plants, some leaving six-packs to smooth their passage.
  • At the local bar, staff handed out face masks leftover from last year’s fire. A parade of trucks passed by morning and evening, and patrons swapped stories about loved ones refusing to evacuate. Cash flow problems are mounting and credit is scarce.

Cornell had prepaid his 2018 local cultivation tax, $1 per square foot, a requirement to receive his local cultivation permit. “It’s a pretty low tax rate, but there’s no accounting for crop loss, catastrophe, etc. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I really wish we had pushed for a gross receipts tax, because shit happens, apparently,” he said ruefully. “The problem is the cashflow issue if you lose your crop.”

The day the Ranch Fire started, Cornell was installing posts for a security fence around his one-acre garden, a compliance requirement. The next day, he evacuated. The day after, his house and his compliance plan were ash. The lengthy county permitting process had one upside: A new greenhouse and processing building never got built, so they never burned.

Cannabis farmers operate with little to no access to crop insurance, and when fire comes, pot farmers aren’t allowed into evacuation zones to tend their crops like other farmers are allowed to. After the damage is done, little to no federal or state assistance exists.

California fire officials at the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection protect life first, then consider the community’s “economic base,” said Scott McLean, CalFire’s chief of public information. In the past, firefighters avoided entering pot farms for fear of being shot at or stepping in a trap. Today, “it’s a new direction now with the legalization,” and the agency follows law enforcement’s lead, addressing each situation individually.

Disaster aid and insurance is also inconsistent. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stated cannabis shouldn’t be an issue. But cannabis farmers are not eligible for emergency Small Business Administration loans. FEMA allocates up to $34,000 for fire victims, but the agency won’t cover crop losses or damage to agricultural buildings.

Private insurance markets are spotty at best. Homeowner’s insurance premiums in fire country are skyrocketing. Outdoor growers cannot get any crop insurance, said Ellen Komp, deputy director of California NORML.

Crop losses also extend beyond fire damage to smoke contamination. Cannabis’s delicate, resinous flower buds hit peak maturity in the October fire season. They absorb smoke particulates and the final product can end up smelling like a campfire, diminishing its value.

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Samantha Miller, president and chief scientist of Pure Analytics lab, tested samples from growers worried their crop wasn’t safe to consume. Aside from flame retardant, safety isn’t a big concern, Miller said. Wildfire smoke usually contains few harmful contaminants. Farmers’ biggest concern—beyond flowers covered with chemical retardant—is going broke when no one wants to buy what’s dubbed “campfire kush.”

For some, the wildfires mean doubling down on growing instead of calling it quits. We met one unlicensed grower, “Robert,” who said ashes have been falling on his illegal cannabis for weeks. The grower started another round of baby plants, called clones, in case he loses the mature crop to smoke damage. The size of his unpermitted garden has doubled.

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Replanting for the Winter

One thing is certain: Whether it’s so-called trespass growers sneaking back onto mountainsides or Cornell replacing his fence, cannabis planting continues in the Triangle.

Cornell is eager to be back living on the land, and is considering a winter crop housed in a cheap greenhouse to make back some money and diversify the types of cannabis he grows. He’s got new plants, too—over two feet tall, donated by Top Hat Nursery.

He’s redrawing once-ambitious business plans. An environmental consultant by training, Cornell had been meticulous about organic farming and had covered the garden with mulch, which quickly caught fire. He’d built up his soil, which is now torched. Now, he hopes to balance watershed health and fire survival.

Overall, he’s optimistic. His family has $12,000 from an online fundraiser and homeowner’s insurance to start rebuilding. PG&E replaced his power poles so quickly he initially thought the old ones had survived.

“There are silver linings, but it’ll take a year to realize them, and it’ll take a year of survival-style living until then,” he said.

The sweat equity Cornell put into the land for a decade is gone, but he’s happy for what’s left. He lost his house, but fate left him his shed.

“If we lost this shed, would we have had the money to build a new shed?”

“So I just got a few things—things that are essential. So a small deal, but kind of a big deal. I got a hammer, I got some screws.

“I’m ready to charge, as usual, and I’m pretty confident that it’ll work out just fine in the end.”