Contra Costa County firefighters are adopting new strategies to deal with what they say is a growing problem: blazes breaking out at marijuana grow houses.
Any fire poses grave risks to firefighters, said Vic Massenkoff, investigator for the Contra Costa Fire Protection District. But fires at large-scale cultivation sites are especially dangerous, and they require unique approaches, he said.
Those include new techniques for training firefighters. That means spotting the signs of a grow house and fighting the fire defensively, from the outside, rather than taking the fight indoors, where things may be too dangerous. It also means waiting until power is turned off before going inside.
“There’s no material possession that’s worth the life of our firefighters,” said Contra Costa fire Capt. Robert Marshall.
Officials say the focus at each fire may be less on saving the burning home than on preventing the fire from spreading to neighboring homes.
According to the district, there have been about 35 fires reported at large grow-house operations in the last few years. And residential cultivation sites are becoming more common, they said – so common that a 2011 study found about 8 percent of California’s energy resources are used by indoor grow operations.
“It’s an epidemic as far as how many homes are being converted to full marijuana growing operations,” Massenkoff said.
A big part of the problem is the electrical systems used by grow-house operators, fire officials said. The power company can usually spot cultivation sites by the amount of energy consumed, so growers re-wire the homes to bypass utility meters.
Such jury-rigged systems often fail, however, and that can spark a fire that moves rapidly through the walls. It also causes arcing, in which electricity passes back and forth between electrical wiring and metal surfaces. This increases the risk that firefighters could be electrocuted.
In addition, growers often bar windows and doors, and they may build extra walls to conceal the plants, Massenkoff said.
Contra Costa County firefighters ran into many of these problems while fighting a blaze in January in Pittsburg. The house was gutted, the roof collapsed, and firefighters were forced to battle the flames from outside.
“That fire,” Massenkoff said, “was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The hazards to firefighters became very evident in this fire . . . We realized it was time to provide new direction to firefighters on how to deal with fires at these types of properties.”