Illegal Pot Farm Sparked California's 2015 Rocky Wildfire, Officials Say

By Keri Blakinger 08/22/16

Two people suspected of running the marijuana operation fled the country before they could be taken in for questioning.

Illegal Pot Farm Sparked California's 2015 Rocky Wildfire, Officials Say

The fire that decimated 43 homes in rural California last year was initially sparked by an illegal pot-growing operation, authorities said last week. 

The Rocky fire, which raged on for more than two weeks, torched 108 square miles north of San Francisco, burning through areas of Lake, Yolo, and Colusa counties. The blaze destroyed 43 homes and 53 outbuilding structures before firefighters brought it under control. 

A faulty water heater near a farm of 100 marijuana plants east of Clearlake ignited the flames, according to Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Janet Upton. “It was strapped to a tree. Quite inventive, and why it was not very safe,” she said, according to the Associated Press

Two people suspected of running the operation fled the country before they could be taken in for questioning, officials said. An investigation is still underway, but so far no arrests have been made in connection to the fire, which was the second most destructive wildfire around Lake County in 2015, according to ABC affiliate KXTV

The blaze, which began July 29, 2015 near Clearlake, grew so quickly that it created its own weather system, the Los Angeles Times reported last year. Thousands of people in Lake, Yolo, and Colusa counties were evacuated as the flames spread and moved closer to residential areas. 

The Rocky fire was just one of at least five pot-related wildfires in Northern California in 2015. Four of this year’s wildfires have also been tied to marijuana grow operations, according to AP. It’s unclear whether there has been an increase in pot-related fires over previous years, but in the future, officials may separate cannabis-related conflagrations into a separate reporting category.

All nine of the pot-related wildfires over the past two years happened in Northern California. According to Upton, the climate in Southern California is less conducive to growing marijuana at lower elevations. 

Also last week, CalFire officials announced the arrest of a man suspected of starting another of Lake County’s wildfires, the Clayton Fire, which claimed over 3,000 acres as of last Wednesday. Damin Anthony Pashilk was arraigned last week on 19 charges, including aggravated arson and arson with damages exceeding $7 million. Authorities suspect the "serial arsonist" was responsible for other fires throughout the region as well.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.