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Wildfires are threatening California's marijuana “Emerald Triangle”

by Josh Marcus
Oct 10 2017, 4:08pm

The wildfires in Northern California that began on Sunday have killed 13 people, burned more than 1,500 structures, and consumed over 115,000 acres of land — and they’ve also damaged the state’s marijuana industry.

California is America’s top domestic producer of cannabis, and the estimated 17 concurrent fires raging across northern California’s famed wine country have also disrupted business near the state’s so-called Emerald Triangle, a three-county, 10,000 square mile region that’s home to one of the world’s highest concentrations of marijuana farms, causing businesses to shut down and farmers to leave millions of dollars of product to go up in smoke.

Hezekiah Allen of the California Growers Association estimates there are between 3,000 and 5,000 growers in the affected region, totaling about 700 acres and “a few hundred million” dollars in value.

A “significant catastrophe”

“There are a lot of growers out there. Through the course of yesterday, three members have lost their homes and farms, and several more in the broader community,” he said. “This is going to be a pretty significant catastrophe.”

Across the region, cannabis-related businesses — lawyers, farms, dispensaries — were closed or evacuated.

Kevin Zimmin works for Natural Cannabis Company, a network of dispensaries in Northern California with a store in Santa Rosa, one of the cities hardest hit in the fires. It had to close its Santa Rosa location on Monday, and even though it’s open today, operations have been slow because of massive traffic jams across the region.

“It’s been a fricken nightmare. It’s been a bottleneck everywhere,” he said. “Some people came in looking to get their medicine, and it was very, very slow.”

WATCH: Massive wildfires have killed a dozen in northern California

The fires come just as outdoor growers — who make up the majority of operations in the region — are beginning their once-a-year harvest season.

“We’ve seen complete annihilation so far,” said Benjamin Bradley, of the California Cannabis Industry Association. “Whole farms are burned down.”

Bradley has heard reports of at least 30 sites that’ve been directly affected, and two who’ve had criminals steal from their properties in the chaos of the fire.

Zimmin grows medical marijuana outdoors near Santa Rosa that he sells to local dispensaries.

He got the call to evacuate at 3:45 in the morning on Monday. At first, he thought he might stick around and watch over his crop a bit longer.

“I’ve got my family’s livelihood sitting out there,” he said.

Orange fireball

Then his wife made him look outside. There was an orange fireball approaching, so he decided to pack up and leave. But he says most people in the industry didn’t make that choice.

“The majority of the people that I know, especially in areas that have been under the mandatory evacuations, they’re hunkered down,” he says. “Nobody wants to leave their crop.”

And for those who left, power outages have likely turned out the lights on their indoor growing operations, which have been growing in popularity since California legalized medical marijuana in 1996.

“You’re stuck without being able to do anything about it,” Zimmin said.

Wildfires are especially dangerous for for Northern California’s growers, says Allen, from the Grower’s Association, because they have historically operated in remote, rural areas, the kind that catch fire every summer in California.

“Those were really good places to hide,” he said.

Even though marijuana is now effectively legal in California, these facilities still remain in high-risk fire zones.

And with California set to start legal, recreational weed sales in 2018, Zimmin said he believes the area experienced an extra increase in the number illegal grow-ops, as cultivators tried to sneak in a last season of black market profits.

“There are a lot of large grow operations simply because people were trying to get stuff in knowing that this is the last hurrah,” he said. “They went everything to the wall.”

This high concentration of plants is at risk of being ruined in the heat.

“Hickory kush”

“The majority of the crops that will be near the fire-infested land will be unusable,” said Bradley, from the California Cannabis Industry Association.

Those that survive will be left with a distinct — and to some unsavory — smoky smell, prompting California’s weed-sellers to market this year’s projected $13 million-pound harvest with names like “campfire pot,” “hickory kush,” and “beef jerky.”

Despite the damage in the north of the state, Allen is confident the fires won’t disrupt the overall weed supply chain in California

“I don’t think this is going to affect things down the supply chain,” he said. “We’ve got an abundance of supply here. Even if a lot of folks lose their crops, there’s plenty of extra pounds being grown.”