Fires in Pot Country May Bring Casualties as Growers Stay Put

September 24, 2020

Los Angeles Times:

Nate Trujillo sat on a windy ridge and watched California’s largest wildfire, the August Complex, work its way toward the cannabis-growing enclave of Post Mountain-Trinity Pines, where many of the locals are refusing to evacuate. 

Law enforcement officers went door to door warning of the danger a few days ago, but “we couldn’t force people to leave,” said Trujillo, a narcotics deputy in the Trinity County Sheriff’s Department. “It’s mainly growers. And a lot of them, they don’t want to leave because that is their livelihood.”

It is a critical time of year in the Emerald Triangle, a three-county corner of Northern California that by some estimates is the nation’s largest cannabis-producing region.

Trinity Pines alone is home to up to 40 legal farms, with more than 10 times that number of illegal grows hidden off its dirt roads, according to people familiar with this part off the Trinity Alps, inland from Humboldt.

Each farm has crops worth half a million dollars or more, and many are within days or weeks of harvest, making growers wary of leaving vulnerable to either flames or thieves. Among the holdouts are numerous Hmong families, originally from Laos and other Southeast Asian countries, who have moved to the area in recent years, along with Bulgarians and Russians and a smattering of neighbors drawn by the remote beauty of towering cedars and firs. 

One estimate put the value of the legal crop alone at about $20 million. 

“There [are] millions of dollars, millions and millions of dollars of marijuana out there,” Trujillo said. “Some of those plants are 16 feet tall and they are all in the budding stages of growth right now.”

As of Thursday, authorities and locals estimated that as many as 1,000 people remained in Post Mountain and Trinity Pines, communities where gunfire is common. Not long ago, nightfall brought what locals dubbed the “roll call,” in which cannabis cultivators, one after another, shot rounds from pistols and automatic weapons as a warning that outsiders should beware, said Post Mountain volunteer Fire Chief Astrid Dobo, who also manages legal cannabis farms. 

Though bullets can’t stop the current threat to the crops, locals are steadfast in their determination to defend what they have. That includes residents with no ties to the cannabis trade. 

Susan Bower has lived in Post Mountain since 1973 and stayed through multiple fires. Thursday, she remained at home and will leave only when “it’s actually burning the trees and grass on the other side of our garden fence,” she said. She and her husband have planned “an emergency way out if the forest is on fire” and have accepted that such blazes are “part of the regime” for living in wildlands.

Kind weather kept the fire, now more than 860,000 acres and growing, moving slow until Wednesday, when the breeze kicked up. Now, it has crept within a mile of Trinity Pines. More wind and heat are expected in coming days, and the danger of devastation grows with with every yard the flames advance. 

But cannabis-growing residents, mistrustful of authority and “used to being looked down on and being invisible in situations like this,” have said they believe back roads out will be a viable last resort. Having weathered fires before, they think they can defend their properties themselves with garden hoses, gravity tanks and shovels, Dobo said. 

Fire officials have warned the community they will do everything they can to defend the crops but will not risk firefighters’ lives to save residents who have refused to leave. Crews have dug a 40-foot-wide dozer line around the area and are hoping to use nearby Highway 36 as a containment line. 

“The thing that we need to make clear is we are not going to die to save people. That is not our job,” said Mike McMillan, spokesman for the federal incident command team managing the northern section of the August Complex. It has been divided into three branches because of its huge size. 

“We are going to knock door to door and tell them once again,” McMillan said. “However, if they choose to stay and if the fire situation becomes, as we say, very dynamic and very dangerous … we are not going to risk our lives.”


One Response to “Fires in Pot Country May Bring Casualties as Growers Stay Put”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    For those near the coast who refuse to leave when a hurricane landfall is threatening, the sheriff’s people can at least request that the residents use a Sharpie to write identifying information on their arms or torso.

    I guess in the case of fire, people should wear some sort of heat-resistant dog tags.

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