California has the largest hold on the legal cannabis industry of any other state or region. In 2019 alone, the state brought in about $3.1 billion, up from about $2.5 billion in 2018. Though 2020 has been a rocky year for sales, overall the industry seems to be growing even further. But a major setback each year in California are the horrific wildfires that plague the state.
2020 has been the worst year on record in that department, with two of the states largest fires in history sparking up in August. Some of those fires happen to overlap with the area of the largest marijuana farms in the state. One farm, for instance, lost four fifths of its crop. The owner of Sweet Creek Farm, Kaela Peterson, is quoted estimating she’s already lost about $150,000 worth of product, which she feels rounds up to a total loss.
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The co-founder of WAMM Phytotherapies says the CZ Complex Fires may have burned nearly every inch of the farm in Santa Cruz. WAMM stands for Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana
Those are not the only instances of pot grower’s livelihoods going up in smoke recently, and they likely will not be the last.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection warned California residents statewide that they should be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. More than a hundred thousand people in the Northern part of the state were given mandatory evacuation orders. If a marijuana farm owner is told to leave, there’s no looking back.
Even when the flames don’t touch the plants, they’re still ruined
Even if the marijuana crop doesn’t burn entirely, what’s left over is still severely damaged. Smoke from the wildfires and any soot that falls on top of the flowers will contaminate the smell and flavor. Since the product is sold largely based on those two qualities, in some cases, the smoke and debris make the plants just as worthless as if they’d burned.
In some cases, the stress the smoke puts the plants under can wind up killing them later, too. The same is true if a building burns nearby; the chemicals within the treated wood, paint, and other items can be released into the air as those products burn, contaminating the plant.
The smoke can also set back production in other ways. At a certain point, the air quality becomes unhealthy or even unsafe for people to be exposed to for long spans of time. That means harvesting the flower can be put on hold during wildfires. Though fire season is now considered a year-round affair in California, harvest season starts up around September – as in, right now, as the fires are interrupting that possibility.
The two biggest fires burning at the moment, and also the two biggest the state has ever seen, are both “complex fires” which means they started as individual separate fires and combined into one enormous blaze. Both were formed by continuous lightning strikes. The trouble is, the fires themselves create an environment that produces thunderstorms. A slight humidity in the air mixed with smoke from the fire causes friction, and the heat from the fire rises up to contrast with cool air lower down, producing thunderstorms. Those thunderstorms send off lightning strikes that spark up more fires, and the cycle rages on until hundreds of thousands of acres are consumed by the complex.
The SCU Lightning Complex has torched over 383,000 acres – almost 600 square miles – around Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus Counties. The LNU Lightning Complex has burned only slightly less, devastating Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo, and Solano Counties. Another 600 miles or so have been lost to other wildfires throughout the month. Throughout the year, about 2,600 square miles have burned. Seven people have died in recent fires, and 3,268 buildings have burned.
This is not the first time this has happened
In 2017, deadly wildfires ate up 200,000 acres (or 312.5 square miles) of land. Vineyards in Napa and Sonoma Counties turned to ash. So too did the recreational marijuana industry in that area.
Sonoma and Mendocino Counties hold the majority of California’s cannabis farms, producing much of the marijuana for the entire country. In 2017, those Northern California fires destroyed at least seven farms. The setbacks from that year are still felt today.
But fires don’t just impact the harvest and the industry, they have lasting effects on people’s lives. The farm owners invested everything they had into those pot grows, and none of them had insurance. Because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, banks for the most part will not deal with businesses involved with the product, meaning the industry is handled almost entirely in cash. That remains true in 2020 and is a problem cannabis farmers are facing yet again.
There’s more bad news for 2020, too. Heat waves that are aiding the fires’ growth are also hurting marijuana crops. That record-breaking heat has also caused the state’s energy grid to overload several times, forcing power companies to cut electricity for millions of customers over the course of a few days, which impacts indoor grow operations and air conditioned storage. And of course, the pandemic has caused massive issues at every stage of cannabis growth, production, packaging, and distribution, causing lags in some stages of that chain.
Northern California, where the LNU complex rages on, is world-renowned for its perfect climate for outdoor grow operations. That’s the same area where vineyards thrive for much the same reasons. Outdoor cannabis harvest in the area brings in close to half a billion dollars each year. The climate is steady and predictable for the most part, with plenty of sun to keep the plants thriving. However, fires seem to be getting steadily worse with each year, making the area less predictable than farmers once believed.