Devastating Photos Show Wildfire’s Toll on a California Cannabis Farm

Published on October 11, 2017 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Erich Pearson, chief executive officer of the San Francisco Patient Resource Center, was startled awake at 1:30 a.m. Monday to the hellish sight of a firestorm raining embers onto his sprawling cannabis farm in California’s wine country.

“The entire sky was glowing,” Pearson recounted in an interview with Leafly. “I could see orange and dots of bright red. There were multiple fires all over the mountain.”

The farm, near the Sonoma County village of Glen Ellen, produces cannabis for four medical marijuana dispensaries in Pearson’s SPARC network, including two in San Francisco and others in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

“You could feel the heat through the car windows.”

Pearson’s only option was to get out alive—and quickly.

“We packed the car. We drove down to the bottom of the hill, and the entire neighborhood across the street”—the Trinity Oaks subdivision in Glen Ellen—“was on fire,” he said. “You could feel the heat through the car windows.

“There was nothing I could do for the farm.”

A truck was among the many losses suffered by producers at the Sonoma County cannabis farm hit by wildfire this week. (Photo courtesy of Erich Pearson, SPARC)

In recent days, California has been charred by 22 wildfires that have burned nearly 200,000 acres, destroyed more than 3,500 buildings, and killed at least 21 people. As the infernos continue to tear through the dry landscape, they’re also causing untold damage to cannabis farms at the worst time possible—in the heart of the fall harvest season.

The flames devoured prized cannabis farms in Sonoma County and surrounding areas, causing devastating economic losses by scorching plants with fire or fouling them with toxic smoke and ash.

“I think we can honestly be looking at hundreds of millions of dollars in losses in terms of crop damage and property loss,” said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association. “It’s that significant.”

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Cannabis industry officials estimate there are anywhere between 3,000 and 7,000 marijuana farms in Sonoma County, where the state’s most damaging blaze, called the Tubbs Fire, has taken at least 11 lives and burned more than 28,000 acres. Dozens of others are reported missing. Nearby Mendocino County, where two wildfires have burned more than 35,000 acres and killed three people, is home to an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 marijuana farms.

“Any airborne contamination is going to stick to those buds.”

With massive evacuations and residents uncertain on when they can return, Allen said the Growers Association so far has been unable to determine how many farms have been destroyed. He said the ultimate figure may only be a few dozen. But thousands more could suffer catastrophic crop damage, he added, with plants ruined by the thick smoke blowing over multiple Northern California counties.

“If you’re just talking piles of ashes, I think we may be looking at 30 or 40 farms” destroyed, Allen said. “But the broader regional impact will have thousands of farms seeing reduced values, with some having to destroy their crop. Any airborne contamination is going to stick to those buds. And there’s a lot of toxins in that smoke.”

Goats wander through a fire-ravaged cannabis farm in Sonoma County run by SPARC. (Photo courtesy of Erich Pearson, SPARC)

Pearson made it back to his farm after the fire burned through. All the wooden structures on the property, including 60,000 square feet of processing rooms, some packed with drying cannabis, were destroyed. Some goats that survived the blaze were wandering in front of a flame-mangled metal storage facility.

Some greenhouses, surrounded by fire-protecting gravel buffers, survived. Much of the SPARC farm’s outdoor cultivation was scorched by flames.

“We’re still assessing what we’ve lost,” Pearson said. “Everyone is reacting differently to the situation. I’m in a fight mode. I’m asking, ‘What can we do as a community? What can we do to help our neighbors?

“In Sonoma County, this will be a huge, huge impact on the economy.”

Pearson said he would turn to other cannabis growers in the SPARC dispensaries’ network of medical marijuana patients in order to supply his stores.

Given California’s vast cannabis production, the fires are not expected to create serious shortages at the Golden State’s medical marijuana dispensaries or for cannabis stores due to begin selling for adult recreational use in early 2018.

But many farmers will be looking to salvage what they can. Once glistening buds that would have been trimmed for dispensary displays may be sold on the cheap as raw material for processing into cannabis oils for vaporizing or edibles.

Pearson said he may try to repurpose his greenhouse and surviving cannabis into oils through a CO2 extraction method in hopes of cleansing away smoky residues—if possible.

In Humboldt County, Kristin Nevedal, chairwoman of the International Cannabis Farmers Association, said concerns over smoke-contaminated crops extend to farms far from the immediate fire areas.

“There are people still on their properties who haven’t face a mandatory evacuation, but there is still so much smoke in those areas,” she said. “If your crop is at risk, you can potentially harvest. But where do you take it? Unless you have a completely enclosed building without any smoke, it will be really hard to ensure your harvest” against contamination.

A Long Road to Recovery

Another major challenge is that cannabis farmers, unlike other agricultural producers, generally don’t have access to crop insurance. Those burned out may be able to rebuild destroyed houses, but not replace the lost revenue they needed to pay the mortgage.

“Folks aren’t just losing their farms, they’re losing everything they own,” said Amanda Reiman, vice-president of community relations at Flow Kana, a Mendocino County cannabis distribution company that provides production and marketing for small farmers. “There is a lot of trauma going on, and we want to help them through this crisis.”

“It’s the worst time of the year this could possibly happen.”

Various funds have been set up to generate donations for marijuana farmers affected by the fire, including a “MendoFire: CalGrowers Wildfire Relief Fund,” and a “Farmers Helping Farmers” Gofundme page.

Allen and Nevedal said their organizations may seek waivers in permitting fees from local governments that have licensed cannabis farms under California’s marijuana regulations in an effort to ease the financial burden on affected farms.

With high costs of permit fees and property improvements to meet state rules for water use and environmental protection, “a lot of them have already spent very significant sums of money” to operate in the legal market, she said.

“It is pretty bad right now,” said Casey O’Neill, a cannabis farmer and chairman of the Mendocino County Growers Alliance. “People are losing their gardens, their houses, and their farms … before going to market. It’s the worst time of the year this could possibly happen.

“It’s a very hard time for this community.”

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Peter Hecht
Peter Hecht
Peter Hecht, former political writer and Los Angeles bureau chief for the Sacramento Bee, has been reporting on cannabis since 2009. His coverage has been honored for explanatory reporting in the "Best of the West" journalism awards and earned an Excellence in Journalism prize from the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Hecht is the author of the book “Weed Land: Inside America’s Marijuana Epicenter and How Pot Went Legit.”
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