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By Miriam Raftery

August 22, 2017 (California) – Growth in commercial-scale marijuana farming has created a new set of wildfire-related issues.  Several recent wildfires in California were caused by pot growing operations, Cal Fire reveals.  But in other western states, pot farmers are facing uninsured losses when wildfires threaten their crops.

Four wildfires last year were linked to marijuana growing in California, Janet Upton with Cal Fire says, NBC San Diego reports. That includes a fire in Santa Cruz County that burn 4,400 acres and destroyed a dozen homes started by a portable generator at a pot farm.  Another fire in Monterey County destroyed 900 cannabis plants and left pot farmers trapped for days, until firefighters rescued them.  A year earlier, in 2015, at least five brush fires were blamed on marijuana growers, the San Jose Mercury News reports.

Growers who cause devastating fires could be held liable for damages that they cause. But arresting illegal growers isn’t always easy, since the evidence may go up in smoke.  In some cases, property owners may be unaware of illegal pot growing done by tenants who split the scene when a fire erupts.  

But as states move to legalize marijuana growing and use, legal cannabis cultivators can also be victims of wildfires that start elsewhere, even when they’ve taken all reasonable precautions.

An article in Pacific Standard Magazine in 2015 noted that in Washington State, where marijuana had recently been legalized, wildfires ravaged over 146,000 acres—leaving pot farmers fearing for their livelihoods. 

Timothy Anderson, a medical marijuana dispensary owner, said one of his contact farmers lost his entire farmstead to flames. Anderson says even if the crop doesn’t burn, smoke damage could make absorbent marijuana buds taste unpleasant and worse, ash or contaminants released by wildfires onto plants could potentially be harmful for medicinal marijuana users’ health.

Grower Tim McCormack said fire stopped just five feet from his cannabis farm, after firefighters managed to divert the fire’s course. Had his crop burned, he says he would have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, since crop insurance was not yet available to the marijuana industry as of when he spoke to media in 2015.  “If we had burned down,” he said, “We would be out of business.”

These situations point out the challenges facing state regulators in California as our state moves forward with expanded marijuana legalization following last year’s ballot measure approving recreational cannabis use. 

For the safety of all concerned, it’s imperative that steps to taken to assure that dangerous facilities are shut down, while making sure that legally licensed growing operations are inspected to prevent fire hazards.

The state should also give consideration to protecting farmers who expand into marijuana as a new cash crop, should a wildfire that starts elsewhere extinguish the fruits of their labors.

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