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When wildfire threatens the heart of California’s weed-growing “Emerald Triangle,” local grower Robert Steffano fires up “The Wookie.”
That’s not some new strain of cannabis. The Wookie is a 1990 BMY-Harsco Military M923A2 cargo truck that weighs more than 21,000 pounds. Steffano bought the beast in 2015 for $3,500 directly from the U.S. government in an auction, and then he got to work turning it into a fire engine.
“I’ve built a number of pickup truck–based fire rigs, and they’re very effective and easy to own and operate, but the most water they can carry is about 200 gallons,” Steffano, owner of Villa Paradiso, a weed farm and homestead in Humboldt County, said. “I wanted more; I wanted to build a rig that could handle fighting fire for a while if I had to. I wanted 1,000 gallons of water.”
The 59-year-old, self-described “hippie motorhead” equipped the rig with that-size tank, plus an industrial-grade fire pump he bought on eBay and a hose-wheel he found in Missouri on Craigslist. The truck originally topped out at about 55 mph, but it can now hit 70 thanks to a turbocharged engine and Steffano’s tuning. And he recently added massive off-road tires that can roll over almost any terrain and be deflated at the touch of a button for better traction in tough road situations.
“It sounds like a Wookie because it has these air brakes also on board and then this whole system for making the tires go up and down,” Steffano said. “Most of my neighbors have quick-attack vehicles of some kind. I just called mine The Wookie because it really sounds like that—and a Wookie is not a bad companion to have.”
Steffano is one of many homesteaders living in the cannabis-producing Emerald Triangle of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties in Northern California, an area with some of the hardest-hit fire zones and some of the most dangerous terrain. It’s remote, hard to get to, and with its population of family homesteaders and ex-hippies running relatively small weed farms here, locals say they get little help from state officials--they’re even regarded as expendable, and a little crazy. So to protect their extremely valuable plants, the growers have had to take matters into their own hands. That’s meant forming their own DIY fire departments, equipped with modded, Mad Max–evoking trucks like the Wookie.
Multiple growers told VICE News they absolutely rely on their trucks—mostly large pickups outfitted with massive water drums and heavy hoses, or in some cases updated, full-scale decommissioned fire trucks—to keep their weed farms safe from wildfires, because the state officials “have an axe to grind'' with Humboldt County. Growers told VICE News this beef started back in the 1960s when residents often dissed law enforcement as authority figures, and officials have always viewed the area as outlaw country. However, it’s really a tight-knit community, they say, where everyone looks out for each other—especially during fire season.
Just last August, the local growers helped fight the massive Complex Fire that blazed through Humboldt and several other counties, burning more than 1 million acres of land over the course of three months. The fire arrived at Steffano’s doorstep in the early morning.
“We woke up to this fire just blasting our way. The sky was orange, and I spent the entire morning to about noon, one o'clock, getting my truck back into service because I knew I had to,” said Steffano. “Meanwhile, my girlfriend is getting the animals and everything else in our rigs to get out of here. But I wanted to get this truck up and going so it was available to help the community out. It looked like [Tolkien’s fictional land] Mordor.”
The frequency and proximity of fire incidents has spurred DIY action among the area’s growers under the motto “Protecting ourselves, from ourselves”—an acknowledgement that humans start many wildfires and should take responsibility. In addition to acquiring and rigging their own firefighting equipment, some of the residents are also becoming certified in official firefighting techniques, and then bringing that knowledge to the community. Steffano himself went to fire academy training in 1995 in California, then parlayed that knowledge into a role as chief of the Palo Verde Volunteer Fire Department in Humboldt in the early 2000s. Such departments may be small, he says, but they’re essential to keeping towns like his in Humboldt safe from wildfires.
‘We’re on our own out here, man’
“Our local volunteer fire department is a community base of growers coming together and going, ‘We're on our own out here, man, we better figure something out,’” Steffano said. “So our local little volunteer department started in 1984, and it's become a pretty strong department.”
John Wilhelm, president of the board of directors at the volunteer fire department and operates Kingsview Farms in southern Humboldt County, and Steffano both said it’s not uncommon to see members of the community come out to help prevent wildfires and, as with last year’s fire season, stay behind and help put out the flames—sometimes just wearing basketball shorts and tennis shoes.
“It’s really been the core of our community out here for over 40 years, the fire department,” Wilhelm said. “It’s kind of like your social outlet because when you go to these meetings, everybody is there. When we put on a benefit, everyone in the community is there. So everyone's involved loosely, either actively in the fire department or on the auxiliary, making food and sandwiches for firefighters or things like that, or writing grants—you're somehow contributing to it if you live up here.”
Wilhelm said the community is extremely invested in its DIY fire departments precisely because they’re the entire reason a community exists in the first place.
“There were these hippies that had these little 40-acre pieces of land, and they were so far out in the middle of nowhere that they had to provide for themselves,” Wilhelm said. “And so they formed all these little small fire departments that are largely still around.”
Most of these volunteer departments are funded solely by the community and donations they receive. With the money that comes in, members are able to buy old firefighting equipment from state-sponsored California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), like boots, high-grade shovels, and backpack sprayers.
Even though this equipment is being bought secondhand, there’s still friction between these small volunteer departments and state agencies that handle wildfires, like CAL FIRE, Wilhelm said. The farmer explained that while not all officials dismiss the needs of Humboldt County, many do condescend to the weed farmers off the beaten path, and it can be devastating.
“It’s problematic for us because we have people up here that have million-dollar herb gardens, horses, livestock, and animals, and they couldn't get back up here to take care of their business,” Wilhelm said. “They were not being given respect by the officers. They're kind of like, there's an old axe to grind in Humboldt County against pot growers. And they were kind of like, you know, fuck you guys. Fuck your patch. So when it burns, I don't care. We don't like you guys. So we get a lot of attitude from the old guard.”
Among the growers and farmers, some younger ones are taking up the fight, adopting the DIY mentality of their predecessors and creating more DIY solutions to protect their farms. Wilhelm said that because the work is so strenuous of actually fighting the fires, it’s like “passing the torch” on to the next generation to protect their farms through innovation and dedication.
“I’m trying to get as trained as possible and just be as prepared as possible, because the reality is, it’s terrifying when you see the fires coming,” said 34-year-old Matthew Quittenton, a grower in Salmon Creek. “I'm doing things like firefighting for self-preservation, and also the preservation of my community.”
Quittenton said he’s been around weed growing since he was 18 and has always had a DIY mentality. Originally a carpenter, the grower has used his handyman skills to set up solar energy and sprinkler systems around his farm.
“I try to make my farm a beautiful place to exist because, that's what it is, it’s an existence that we're fighting for out here,” Quittenton said. “I feel like it's somewhat of an American dream, kind of do it yourself, make it yourself, and live in a really cool environment and have a great lifestyle. But it's definitely just like everywhere else. It's very threatened.”
To protect his land, Quittenton has two of his own quick-attack trucks, and he notes the local Salmon Creek Volunteer Fire Department has an old traditional fire engine. He said the department is funded almost entirely from donations but has also received very few state grants.
Still, Quittenton says, as with the Steffano and Wilhelm, the community is what’s keeping Humboldt as safe as it can be from fires.
“We need to work as a community to fight these things, because imagine this: a wall of flame that you can't get close to because it's just too hot,” Quittentonen said. “You try to make breaks so that you have a fighting distance against it. But the problem is these things are heating up so fast that they're throwing pieces of flaming material like Armageddon-style miles ahead. It’s terrifying.”