A wildfire raging for more than two weeks had firefighters in Mendocino County battling to prevent deaths and save property. But there’s one thing they had no intention of saving from the blaze: weed.
Mendocino County is located in Northern California’s famed Emerald Triangle, the biggest pot-producing region in the United States. Supposedly, almost everyone in the Triangle – which also includes Humboldt and Trinity counties – is connected to marijuana in some way.
The industry pays for schools and government services, and it helps keep many local businesses alive. But most of the weed is grown for profit and distributed across the country, which makes it illegal.
Still, cannabis is a critical part of life in Mendocino County, and farmers could lose millions. But Sheriff Tom Allman said he wouldn’t put anyone at risk to save the dope.
“I know there have been several marijuana gardens that have burned up,” Allman told a community meeting that was held as evacuation plans were being carried out. “Let’s talk about the ‘M’ word. We are not willing to use this fire to perform marijuana investigations, but we’re also not going to put firefighters on the lines to protect it.”
That means farmers in the fire’s path had to kiss their crops goodbye, but they don’t need to worry that firefighters will turn them in.
Marijuana causes some problems in the Triangle. It drains so much water it may be contributing to California’s epic drought. And the area is a constant focus of raids by local police and federal agents.
Farmers have no way of recouping their losses, since you can’t get crop insurance on a plant that’s illegal under federal law (and sometimes under state law). Homeowner’s insurance might cover gardens that fall within state regulations, but not larger farms.
Nonetheless, Allman said officials couldn’t afford to make weed a priority.
“When I say life and property, marijuana is not in that definition,” he said.
The local industry has caused at least one problem for firefighters, though it was addressed. Many property owners in the area, especially those who grow pot, gate the roadways that allow access to their land.
“The majority have opened their gates,” said Cal Fire Capt. Carlos Guerrero. Firefighters needed access to private backwoods roads in order the reach the fire, Guerrero said.
But firefighters didn’t encounter any booby traps or other security measures. Allman said such things are usually just urban legend, but he said he “told Cal Fire to be very loud” when entering property.
More than 700 local inmates joined the efforts to fight the blaze. Allman said he wasn’t not concerned about what the fire does to the weed, but he was worried some of those inmates got their hands on it.
“We’ve had to take special precautions, extra steps,” he said. “But as far as I know, no marijuana has been purposely burned by law enforcement, and none has been stolen by inmates.”