For California Cannabis Industry, Wildfires Are a Costly Problem

Jeff Klingman

The wildfires that have plagued California for the past two weeks, destroying property and displacing whole communities via mandatory evacuation, may finally be in check. The two biggest among many active blazes across Northern, Central, and Southern California—the Getty and Kincade Fires—are currently over 70% contained, according to California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It will be some time before officials will have accurate numbers to capture 2019’s swath of destruction, but in 2018 three separate fires caused over $9 billion dollars in damage, killed 88 people, and damaged or wiped out over 20,000 structures. Years of chronic fire impacts have presented troubling warning signs for the state’s cannabis industry, with serious risks presented not only by uncontrolled blazes but also by the controversial new methods undertaken to prevent them.

This year’s threat came at a precarious time. The fire season in California tends to span from late summer to early winter, the time when spring showers have passed and long periods of dry air leaves behind piles of yellowed weeds and brittle kindling. Sparks in brush are stoked and intensified by strong seasonal wind gusts, especially the Santa Ana in the South and the Diablo winds in the North, which can carry embers from recently extinguished fires off to start new ones miles away. This chain of events overlaps ominously with California’s cannabis harvest season, occurring primarily throughout the month of October.

The past month has seen the largest share of billions of dollars worth of outdoor plants come in for drying and curing, among other preparatory steps toward the dispensary shelf. So, when the most recent parties fires began to swell, the bulk of the state’s plants were out of danger for the season. Slower to ripen varietals are being harvested and moved to the drying sheds in early November, so a lessened risk potential does remain for the next few weeks. And large fires starting as late as December are hardly unheard of as well, so fields and facilities could remain in danger even after crops have been picked, packed, and shipped.

Over the last two seasons, the industry was hit much harder. In 2017, the California Growers Association estimated that 30 to 40 percent of the state’s marijuana growers were negatively impacted by fires which caused over a billion dollars in industry-wide loss. 2018 saw numerous fires with costly impact on pot profits. Last summer, eight cannabis greenhouses in Greenville went up in smoke. Later in the season, Redding-based cultivators Alien Labs watched their fields and growing facilities burn away in the blistering Carr Fire. Which is to say nothing of the personal homes and properties of the many industry professionals who live in close proximity to their work.

Given that stark precedent, it’s somewhat ironic that a bigger threat to this year’s crop may have come not from wildfires at all, but the preventative measures designed to prevent them. PG&E, the state’s primary power utility, has drawn steep criticism from the public as well as state regulators and Governor Gavin Newsom, for their “public safety power shutoff events,” i.e., pre-emptive periods of determined blackout meant to lower the risk of fires caused by electrical malfunction. Millions of users in Northern and Central California have been plunged into darkness in these imposed outages over the last month, including growers and cultivators smack dab in the middle of the harvest cycle. Delays caused in drying and prep by a sudden lack of power can be just as devastating to flower as a roaring flame.

In weed mecca Humboldt County, the local Eureka Times-Standard reports a widespread impact from power disruption on cannabis retail as well. Jeff Poel, owner of Eureka dispensary EcoCann claimed over $20,000 in lost sales in just a single dark day. And there are other, less obvious impacts from even brief blackouts. As Santa Rosa cannabis attorney Lauren Mendelsohn pointed out to ABC News this week, farms are often fitted with backup generators to safeguard their grow facilities. Dispensaries caught under blackouts may not have instituted similar safeguards. Some shops could be left without the electricity needed to utilize the track and trace compliance software that’s mandated under state regulation. They might be able to open up under candlelight, but still not be able to sell weed in a way that’s compliant with the law.

With the blackout plan widely viewed as a logistical disaster, it’s possible that sudden lights out won’t become a recurring feature of fall. Wildfires, though, will long continue to devil the region and all those earning their livelihoods within it. A growing number of California cannabis companies and their workers will surely be impacted for years, if not decades, to come.