How California Pot Growers Are Reeling From Out Of Control Wildfires

By McCarton Ackerman 10/27/15

Relief is nowhere in sight for farmers losing their crops.

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The wildlife fires across California this year have devastated homes and communities, but a less obvious victim of the damage are California marijuana growers and the cannabis farms they’ve spent years creating.

The Butte Fire in Calaveras County, which took place last month, burned through 70,000 acres and 500 homes, in addition to claiming two lives. Mike Ray was one of the victims of the fire both personally and professionally. His house, his parents’ cabin and 99 marijuana plants just a few weeks from harvest were all destroyed.

Ray estimates he spent $100,000 growing the marijuana plants, but noted that three other marijuana farms and about 100 grows in Calaveras County alone all went up in flames. “I’m very, very worried about the future of the county,” says Ray. “Calaveras is one of the poorest counties in California and is dependent on the underground industry of cannabis. Many, many people will not be able to rebuild and will have to move somewhere else.”

Because marijuana crops are still illegal at the federal level, pot farmers can’t utilize wildfire safety net programs offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And with the wildfires throughout the state showing no sign of ceasing anytime soon, some farmers are cutting their losses and moving elsewhere.

“As this drought continues, it is obviously going to cause more wildfires and water shortages,” said one anonymous grower in Lake County who lost an $800,000 pot crop when the Rocky Fire consumed his greenhouses last August. "It is going to force people to relocate. It is going to change how people grow, period.”

But others like Ray choose to remain optimistic. With California recently passing statewide medical marijuana regulations and potentially voting on full legalization next year, they intend to stick out these difficult moments in the hopes of profiting on a burgeoning industry in the near future.

“I have a vision that if Calaveras County could embrace the industry, we could build the Napa of cannabis up there,” said Ray. “Being only two hours and 15 minutes from San Francisco, it’s very doable. Ten years from now, it could be an entirely different place. Disasters like this could bring a change.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.