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In a Cannabis Grow Blaze, Firefighters Worry About a Lot More Than Smoke

The Seattle Fire Department responded to a blaze around 2:30 Friday morning at a cannabis cultivation facility in south Seattle.

When firefighters arrived on the scene, they determined the flames had originated from a small, 15-by-20-foot room filled with cannabis plants. It appears the fire was a result of an electrical short circuit, though the incident is still under investigation. Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board records indicate that facility is registered to a company called New Direction, which has been approved for a license but is not yet active.

Responders were able to extinguish the blaze in about 30 minutes.

The air at the scene was thick was cannabis smoke, which led us to wonder: Do firefighters take extra precautions when fighting a cannabis-related blaze?

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Melissa Taylor, public information officer for the Denver Fire Department, gave us insight into the concerns firefighters have when it comes to battling flames in cannabis facilities.

“The joke is about the fumes, but the firefighters are on air [from tanks], so that’s not really anything to be concerned about,” Taylor told us. In other words, firefighters aren’t getting a contact high.

A bigger concern, Taylor said, is the building’s electrical wiring — a much more common and riskier issue.

“When we do come across a grow operation, one of the considerations is always the electrical issues that are related to that grow,” Taylor said. “Obviously we want to get it out as quickly as possible and then mitigate any underlying circumstances.”

Wiring problems are the “one primary concern that we keep an eye on” at grow sites, Taylor said, though she also expressed concern about explosions and fires related to cannabis extraction. Those require immediate attention and decontamination, she said.

“In the earlier times, when it was [recently] legalized, you had a lot of people who were not having buildings retrofitted for the electrical needs of a grow operation,” Taylor said. “Those presented significant issues with poorly fitted electrical wiring.”

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Investigators are still working to confirm what caused the south Seattle fire. According to state records, the operation was licensed and fully legal under state law, although it is still unknown whether the growers had made any changes to the building since its former days as a seafood manufacturing plant.

A typical cannabis growing operation requires about 200 watts of electricity per square foot, plus an elaborate air-conditioning system to ensure the lights don’t overheat. That doesn’t include many peripheral necessities, such as carbon filters, fans, and dehumidifiers. The resulting electric bill can run tens of thousands of dollars per month. And for a building not equipped to handle that kind of massive electrical draw, it can present a major fire hazard.

“That’s what was causing a lot of fires,” Taylor said: “structures that had not been retrofitted for the type of draw that they need for the electrical light system that they use for growing.”

One of the first firefighters on the scene of the Seattle fire, Battalion Chief Benjamin Haskell, also expressed concern about electrical risks.

“All smoke is highly toxic and so we go in with self-contained breathing apparatus. So the smoke from the grow operation doesn’t provide additional hazard,” Haskell told Kiro 7. “The primary hazard that we face tonight, in addition to the smoke and fire, was the electrical hazard in the building.”

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