After the Blaze: The Harrowing Accounts of Wildfire Victims in California’s Cannabis Country

Published on October 27, 2017 · Last updated November 16, 2020
Heat lamps damaged by fire are seen at Ashley Oldham's former home at her farm in Redwood Valley, Calif. on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. Oldham lost her house as well as some of her marijuana plants to fires and intense wind. Photo by James Tensuan

In the early morning hours on a 40-acre plot in Redwood Valley, California, 35-year old cannabis cultivator Jon and his wife, Mel, were sleeping. Then a phone rang, and Mel awoke with a start. A friend was calling to warn them that the flames were heading their direction.

“Within five minutes of waking up, we left,” Jon said.

In those precious minutes, Mel grabbed the couple’s two three-year-old daughters, then together with Jon led his 96-year-old grandmother out to the car. Jon, who asked that Leafly use only his first name, grabbed a chainsaw, some extra fuel, and three boxes of marijuana that had already been harvested and packaged for sale. He tossed them into his truck as the rest of the family piled into their brand-new Subaru.

“You die multiple times when you think your children have passed.”

The drive toward safety was harrowing. Jon remembers screaming as he followed the Subaru, forced to watch his loved ones drive straight “into the inferno” from behind the wheel of his truck.

“I still kind of tear up when I think about it,” he said. “You die multiple times when you think your children have passed.”

The scene was chaos. Propane tanks exploded, trees crumpled into ash, and cars—some full of people despite having caught fire—sped down the nearby hills. Jon tore across the landscape at upwards of 50 miles per hour, he recalled, and at one point drove head-on into a tree. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt at the time and said he credits his survival to pure adrenaline. Jon was forced to abandon the truck and run to safety.

After the fire passed, Jon went back to the site of the accident. He found only a battered skeleton of steel, with the truck’s tires and rims melted into the earth. His three boxes of cannabis had gone up in smoke.

While the home and farm the family leased were destroyed by the blaze, Jon and his loved ones survived intact. Many others who fell victim to the rash of fires that ripped through Northern California in recent weeks weren’t so lucky.

All together, the fires raging through Northern California over the past two and a half weeks have burned through 8,400 buildings and killed at least 42 people, according to recent estimates. The numbers are only expected to grow as firefighters continue to grapple with containing the blazes. The largest of the fires, the Tubbs Fire, centered in Sonoma County, has claimed 22 lives, burned nearly 37,000 acres and 5,400 structures, according to Cal Fire, making it the most destructive in California History.

A satellite captured this image of smoke from wildfires in California on Oct. 9. Wildfires broke out in parts of the state on Oct. 8 around Napa Valley, and the smoke was spread by strong northeasterly winds. (European Space Agency)

Cannabis operators have been hit especially hard, as they lack access to traditional forms of recovery such as crop insurance and federal emergency funds. Many are already cash-strapped and exhausted from jumping through bureaucratic hoops ahead of statewide regulation, set to kick off in January.

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“With little to no access to insurance, bank loans, FEMA, or other local fundraising efforts,” Tawnie Logan of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance said via email, “these operators face a steep climb back on track for state licensing in less than 70 days.”

In Sonoma County alone, at least 45 farms were damaged by the fires, ranging from total destruction to collateral damage caused by things like heat and lack of watering. Residents were under mandatory evacuation for five days, Logan said, meaning farms were left unattended as harvest season approached. At least 10 of the damaged locations had already harvested their crops and were in the process of curing the cannabis, Logan said. Two others, she added, were genetic nurseries, and their loss will impact the “regional land strain seed bank.”

“I felt like after everything that I’ve done to become legal, to be not treated fairly is a major insult.”

In the Glen Ellen community of Sonoma, the fire claimed “everything that we had harvested to date,” Erich Pearson said of his own farm, which provides cannabis for his four regional SPARC dispensaries. Even the crops that survived unsinged are likely to have severe smoke damage, he said. His only shot at salvaging the harvest, he predicted, would be to turn the cannabis into concentrate—and that’s only if it passes laboratory testing.

Prior to the fire, Pearson had submitted an application for an outdoor cultivation license. He now hopes Sonoma County will help him fast-track the application and accommodate his need to use offsite processing facilities. While his retail stores can supplement his loss with cannabis from other growers, some patients have come to depend on his product specifically, he said—and the soonest it will be available is July of next year.

For Ashley Oldham of Frost Flower Farms, cannabis cultivation is a family trade. “It’s kind of been all I’ve done my whole life,” she said. “My parents got raided when my mom was pregnant with me.”

In early 2016, she purchased a farm in Mendocino County’s Redwood Valley. She poured all her money and savings into the acquisition, she said, and had paid off more than half of the property when tragedy struck.

The night the fire struck, Oldham awoke to a series of loud booms. It was windy outside, and she assumed the noises were the slamming of her greenhouse doors. She went back to bed. But not long afterward, she was awakened again—this time by a friend banging on her door, screaming at her to flee.

She’d left her mobile phone at a friend’s house and had been caught unaware as the flames approached. The loud booms from earlier weren’t the greenhouse door slamming but rather the sound of neighborhood propane tanks bursting from the heat. Oldham’s home lost power and was plunged into darkness. All she could use to illuminate the black was her son’s Batman flashlight. (Her son was staying elsewhere that night, but her daughter was at home.)

With the help of the flashlight and a few neighbors who showed up to help, Oldham grabbed her computer, her daughter’s favorite stuffed animal, a filing cabinet, a basket of laundry, and a small amount of money. The bulk of her cash, however, was unreachable in the rushed escape and burned up in the fire, she said. “It’s like a constant risk to not be able to have access to banking systems like everyone else.”

Following the fire, Ashley Oldham trellises cannabis plants that she moved into her new greenhouse at her farm in Redwood Valley on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. (James Tensuan for Leafly)

Mere hours after evacuating, Oldham was anxious to return to her property. Given the evacuation orders, she was forced to dodge authorities and barricades on the 3.5-mile hike back to the greenhouse.

The structure had been spared from the initial flames, Oldham said, and she returned just in time to save it from a small spot fire that broke out. Most of her plants survived but are singed, heat-damaged, or covered in ash. She’s now taking great pains to nurse them back to health but notes that whether or not they’ll pass lab testing is another story.

One of the biggest losses Oldham suffered in the fire was the loss of her proprietary cannabis strains. “All my genetics burned,” she said. “I’ve been breeding cannabis since I was 16 years old and I’m 31 now.” Some strains she’s cultivated for decades are now gone forever.

While Oldham has worked to maintain a positive outlook, she is notably upset by the preferential treatment given to grape growers. When agricultural trucks were allowed back into the affected area to tend grapes, Oldham said, she was denied access to tend her her fully licensed grow. Vineyards can go a very long time without being watered, said Oldham; cannabis can’t.

“I felt like after everything that I’ve done to become legal, to be not treated fairly is a major insult,” she said.

Oldham hopes Mendocino County will be understanding and offer growers like herself amnesty as they get up-and-running again.

Not far away in Redwood Valley, Jon is thinking about moving on. The home the family leased is nothing more than a pile of rubble and metal roofing. His landlord made it clear that he and his family aren’t welcome back on the property, he said, and he’s not expecting to receive much of an insurance payout.

Instead, Jon has set his sights on buying land, getting his hands on a camper, and putting his carpentry experience to use by building a new home. He’s taking joy in little things, like buying a pair of new, $150 shoes. At its best, he said, the fire gave him the opportunity to “rewrite” his own life and his family’s future.

“I’m taking it in a positive stride,” he said, “because if I don’t, it’s horribly overwhelming.”

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Hayley Fox
Hayley Fox
Hayley Fox is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She writes about cannabis legalization, news, crime, and culture in Southern California and beyond. Her work has been published online and in print for Leafly, Rolling Stone, Playboy, VICE, LA Weekly, and others.
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