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As fire tornadoes—or “firenados”—rip across Northern California, cannabis growers in a small town literally called "Weed" are struggling to protect their crops.
“You can see it coming, and it’s flaring up pretty good in front of the house. The only thing you think about is everything you worked your whole life for is going to be gone in a flash,” Shane Phillips, the 39-year-old owner of Lemurian Industries, a cannabis business in the city, told VICE News.
The Lava Fire, which ignited on June 24 from a lightning strike, has already burned 20,000 acres across Siskiyou County, which butts up to the border of Oregon, and grew by thousands more Wednesday night. Although it’s no Humboldt County, the area is known for growing cannabis. In particular, a community within the city of Weed, called Lake Shastina, has an estimated 6,000 growing sites.
If the fire continues to spread, the operations’ owners and workers will have to decide whether to risk their lives trying to protect the businesses or evacuate and watch their main source of income literally go up in smoke.
“If we lose this,” Phillips said, “we lose everything.”
The Lava Fire, which is only 19 percent contained as of Thursday, is so intense that it’s started producing phenomena called “firenados,” vortexes of flames and wind that can gust more than 150 miles per hour and spray blazing embers on surrounding areas. They’re extremely dangerous indicators of a dire wildfire situation.
On Monday night, video emerged of a firenado from the Lava Fire tearing through the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near the city of Weed, according to KPIX, a CBS affiliate in the Bay Area.
“The fuels are so tinder-dry that there are huge areas igniting—thousands of acres of fire progression in hours—so what happens is just like in a natural tornado,” Neal Driscoll, a professor of Geoscience at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said during a media conference Wednesday. “You create a pressure differential, and all of sudden you have hot, warm air rising, and then air surrounding it moving it.”
Born and raised in Weed, a city of less than 3,000 people, Phillips has been in the cannabis industry his whole life. Although nearly 3,200 people have been issued evacuation orders in Lake Shastina, Phillips has decided to stay to protect his livelihood—even though the fire is only 2 miles away from him.
“It’s touch and go: One moment you’re OK with the decision, and the next you feel like you’re going to lose everything,” said Phillips, who’d been preparing to leave for a business trip before the fire. “It’s not new, but the feeling is almost indescribable.”
Phillips is right: California has been dealing with wildfires—and firenados—for years, thanks to continually historic droughts and other effects of the climate crisis. During the devastating 2018 Carr Fire in Shasta County, just south of Siskiyou, firenados were whipping up blazing 136-165 mph winds, according to the National Weather Service.
“These firenados get embers high into the atmosphere,” Driscoll said. “So, the Carr Fire actually crossed the Sacramento River, which we thought would be a natural fire break.”
The phenomenon makes fighting blazes like the Lava Fire extremely difficult. CAL Fire is currently using aircraft and ground crews to first cut off the fire from residential areas. Like with most wildfires, though, the terrains these crews are working on are treacherous, and nearby water sources are few and far between.
The fire has stretched from the northwestern base of Mount Shasta all the way to Juniper Flat near the Oregon border. It’s shutdown nearby roads, and the Forest Service has closed off parts of Shasta Trinity National Forest, along with campgrounds in the area.
Back in Weed, tensions are rising between locals and officials. Growers, including Phillips, have said that state authorities and CAL Fire are letting the fire burn and refusing to pay the city much attention.
“We try to protect our farms, use our own water trucks and resources, but I don’t think that mixes well with CDF [California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection],” Phillips said. “But I feel like everything has been built for a corporate base. There hasn’t been any real help in the big picture; we’re just doing it for the love of what we do.”
An incident near Weed on Monday left a Hmong man dead after cops shot him when he tried to enter a cannabis farm in an evacuation zone, according to the Sacramento Bee. Authorities said the man had a gun and fired at the officers after they asked him to leave.
Phillips said that a large number of Hmong and Chinese residents help on cannabis farms in the area, and that the entire community, himself included, wants to see more unification, especially from the state, so violence can be avoided.
“I understand the fear on the state side, but sometimes you gotta let the community do what they do,” Phillips said. “If you let the locals help a little, maybe give them some training, maybe this thing could have been nipped in the bud a lot quicker.”