BEHIND THE SCENES of CALIFORNIA’S WILDFIRES

  In retrospect, I should have felt alarm. I might have suspected that nothing would ever again be quite the same. But it all began innocently enough. July 30, 2015, after a splendid day tending the weed at five thousand foot elevation in the mountains of Humboldt County, California, a light show began in the darkening shadows across the sky. Dry lightning, the sort usually accompanied by heavy rain, began crackling and thundering. As evening set in and the stars began to twinkle, the cadence of the electrical storm quickened, and the silhouette of the “Trinity Alps” against the sky was awesomely zapped and strobed in great flashes of white hot lightning. There was almost a Hollywood quality to the sky show, as though the credits for Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein might roll across the horizon while the great cracks of thunder melodramatically overwhelmed the darkness.

  But no rain fell. My comrades in our collective were absent, taking a little summer break at the annual Reggae on the River festival in southern Humboldt. My long suffering back was barking at me. My doctor’s prescription for cannabis was the perfect medicine for the pain, and something I normally treat with edibles to dull the pain throughout the night. But with that gorgeous light show going on, I wanted to take my medicine in such a way as to best appreciate the remarkable weather conditions, so I broke out the bong and took two deep draws of some early harvest bud. Oh yeah. How could I even be aware of my aching back with such fresh medicine and such a brilliant light show? It was baad.

Mask  But no rain fell. No rain fell. By and by, I did notice a few glowing spots on the mountain across the Trinity River valley from me. Nothing as dramatic as the lightning. Just little glows of yellow and orange. It turned out over three hundred forest fires were ignited by dry lightning in California that night. That beautiful night. Over the next few weeks those little glowing hot spots would grow and combine into the 73,000 acre Mad River Complex of forest fires. But for now, I did not register any alarm and I slept deeply. Alarm would not set in until morning when I awakened to discover small plumes of smoke rising from a half dozen locations on the mountain across the river valley from me. The sort of plumes that rise from stoves in cabins during the winter months. But this was the last day of July and it is very uncommon to see plumes of smoke during the hot, dry summer. I was alarmed at the sight. But more alarming was the smell. I could not see anything yet, but clearly there was something on fire above me. Every so often I would catch a whiff.

  One thing I have learned out here in the mountains is that mountains are better understood from a distance. It is much easier to “read” the terrain with some perspective. The hollows and draws and rifts and ridges are much easier to appreciate at a distance. When I am insignificantly right on top of these features, it is much more difficult to discern patterns and understand their relationships to other features.

  Our State of California sanctioned “grow” occurs on a quarter section of mountain with approximately 800 feet of elevation change on the property. Eleven “flats” had been cleared and leveled as areas to pile logs during timber harvests a few decades back. My team, a collective of patients with medical cannabis prescriptions, had erected greenhouses on one flat where the light cycle could be controlled, while “full season” plantings had been made on three of the sunniest additional flats. Rutted roads connected these flats and provided access to the outside world; up to a major forest service road, down to the river valley. Upon purchase of the property, great efforts were made to improve these roads, to fill in the wash outs and to grade over the ruts. Still and all, this is four wheel drive country!

  Despite much bad press concerning the environmental atrocities of illegal trespass grows in our national forests or on Native American reservations, even law enforcement will admit that many private grows fully comply with the rules and regulations of government agencies. Our property has building permits from the county, harvest and grading permits from the Forest Service, water diversion and usage permits from both the state Fish and Wildlife Department and Water Board. Engineers designed the septic system, the road grading. Foresters approved the timber plan, etc. The number of cannabis plants was determined by the number of members in the collective, in compliance with Humboldt County. But our mountain was on fire. HOLY SMOKE! Indeed.

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 7.38.23 PM  It finally sank in that this was a bigger deal than I had allowed. A hugely bigger deal. And here I was, alone, my cohorts dancing in southern Humboldt. Although I had just watered the full sun plants the day before, and the greenhouses yesterday, I began watering again, just in case I might have to evacuate. I knew that at least some portion of the crop would likely survive a major fire, two of the flats being significantly away from the tree line, but I also suspected that getting back up the mountain to water our plants after the fire had passed would be problematic. I watered everything and closed the valves on the storage tanks except for the tank that flowed to the cabin. The smoke had been getting worse and worse all day. Everything was hazy. The valley below me filled with smoke. And smoke appeared to be wafting down the mountain toward me, but the winds and drafts were so tricky that it was impossible for me to ascertain where exactly above me the fires were concentrated. Hopefully, there were no fires anywhere near where the jeep was parked.

With dusk, however, the extent of my problem became evident. Up mountain, there were many “hot spots” to the left. An evacuation might be possible; the road descended to me from the right. Across the valley a half dozen hot spots glowed like embers, slowly spreading as the night progressed. Beneath me and to the right, a plume of white smoke against the hazy sky indicated a major fire. This was not encouraging because the logical evacuation route down the mountain would have to go right through this area. That night was long. It was all so beautiful and surreal, but the anticipation was sheer terror! I arose a couple of times to walk around the property. It seemed to me that the heat must be creating it’s own localized wind.

Dawn broke and I was indecisive. I actually convinced myself that with less breeze, the fires were not likely to burn as hot. Perhaps they would burn themselves out, or around me. I would later learn that about that time friends had made an attempt on the upper road to come and fetch me. However, a mile from our gate, the fires were too intense and my comrades turned back. Around two in the afternoon, the wind picked up, the fire turned toward me, and with fire crackling its way down the driveway above me, suddenly a stand of Douglas fir near the cabin burst into flames. From that point on until late that night, my memory is in slow motion. I’m not even going to attempt to describe the terror of the wind carrying fireballs from 200+ foot fir trees and seemingly spitting those fireballs at me. There I was, choking on smoke, with a silly garden hose, putting out fires on the deck, the cabin roof, the tool shed. My abundant ineffectiveness was matched by my stubborn determination. Eventually the fires must have burned the plastic piping coming down the hill from the water tanks, for my garden hose sputtered to a trickle, then stopped completely. Only then did I recognize what look had been on my two dog’s faces throughout my time playing fireman. Clearly they were wondering, “Why are we still here?”

With that realization, I put down the flaccid hose and the dogs and I walked down the mountain. Well, sometimes we ran. But mainly we walked. Eight or nine miles. To a Red Cross comfort station. Word up. I am in complete astonishment at how all the various government and private entities knit themselves together during our California wildfires to weave a marvelous social fabric. A gorgeous tapestry, I’d have to say. It was a beautiful thing for me to stumble down the mountain into the welcoming arms of the Red Cross. I was thankful to see fire crews and law enforcement working tirelessly to save lives, to prevent property loss, to calm the confusion. It was remarkable how quickly the fire dangers were assessed and addressed. Fire camps were established that would grow to thousands of residents each. Community centers and other public buildings quickly transformed into canteens and supply depots. The rock quarry became a diesel fuel depot for all the fire trucks. The little Dinsmore airport became a heliport, each helicopter with its own camp of attendants. Firemen even showed up on bulldozers from Alabama! Within days, firefighters and their auxiliary personnel were on hand from 23 states. It was the most organized pandemonium I have ever witnessed. (Think of D-day movies without the machine guns.)

I am certain I am not the only grower with abiding gratitude for the benevolence and camaraderie of my fellow citizens. This Thanksgiving was the first time in my life I ever actually got down on my knees to give thanks. Yeah. That grateful. Our little medical cannabis collective also felt that same spirit of cooperation and fellowship. In good times, people can get sidetracked with petty grievances and jealousies. But given a serious peril, everyone became communistic comrades, arm in arm, striving ever upward toward a common goal. “SAVE THE WEED!”

And save it we did. Three days after my hasty retreat down the mountain, a collective convoy went back up to assess the damage and water our girls. The devastation was breathtaking to see, hazardous to breathe. We had gas masks or, frankly, our task would have been impossible. Our own roads were confusing, because with acre upon roadside acre burned to a crisp, nothing quite looked the same. A few trees had fallen across our roads. We learned that chainsawing charred logs is a filthy job. For the first time ever we left the gates open, both upper and lower, knowing that the fire crews would need access to draw water from our creek. The damage to our crop was substantial, but not devastating. Only one end of one greenhouse had melted. Only one flat was completely crisp. Other flats were just singed around the edges. Thousands of feet of water pipe had melted or burned. The cabin and trailer were gone. The aluminum rims on the jeep had actually melted into puddles. But the greenhouses that we had been pulling blackout tarps over every evening at six (in order to fool the plants into thinking it was autumn) were in full blossom. Fortunately, a large store of organic nutrients survived. Woven wire fencing for caging the plants and supporting the growing flowers survived. We mounted a water tank on a truck and from it pulled hoses through the woods to extinguish hot spots on our property. (Fallen logs and stumps could smolder for days, igniting new fires when the wind picked up.)

The creek flow was adequate despite the drought, and the state of emergency authorized firefighters to draw water from it and haul that water to other sites. We had to laugh at the Texas firefighters who had to hang ribbons of green tape from branches and bushes in order to even find the creek! The name of the fire department was printed on the ribbon. Fancy! Their trucks were fancy as well, raising clouds of dust as they sped past our greenhouses. Those greenhouses had been built to facilitate the pulling of blackout tarps, but the sticky buds, five weeks into flower, would have been ruined with ash and dust had those greenhouses not been there.

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As you might expect, the differences in the legal status of cannabis between the state and federal agencies soon became apparent. We were told that Cal Fire’s employees had been directed to cooperate with, to work alongside growers. In one instance, Cal Fire directed the dozer group from Alabama to cut a fire line down the mountain explicitly to protect our neighbor’s grow. The instances of growers and firefighters working side by side and coordinating their efforts were numerous.

Not so the federal forest rangers. Naturally, with all the equipment being moved around, and the danger posed by the fires, there were numerous road closings. The state authorities “soft” closed their roads, so that folks who could prove they owned or lived somewhere could access their property. Not so the feds. Forest Service roads were “hard” closed, open only to rangers and firemen. If the feds caught us on one of their roads, we would get escorted back down the mountain. But it was not long before we figured out their duty schedules and observed the codes written on firefighter’s windshields. We took precautions accordingly and managed to get a convoy in and out twice a week to work our grow. Our American gas masks were cumbersome. It was hard to see the buds over the cheek mounted canisters. We were all grateful at the arrival of a special order of Polish Cold War gas masks with the canister extended on a hose and clipped to our belts. Those communists may have lost the Cold War, but they sure knew their gas masks!

By Labor Day the fires were pretty much under control and the air was fit to breathe. Some of our group moved back on site in a tent. The buds on plants that had been half burned were huge! (We suspect the unspoiled roots were pumping all that water and nutrients into only half a plant, making for some bodacious buds!) The greenhouses were bursting with harvest. That month of unbreathable foul air had not fouled the plants. They loved it! And the diffused light in the smoky haze? The buds seemed to fill out a little softer and less dense. They appeared to grow more like indoor bud does. I’m not going to try and explain here why plants enjoy air that is more concentrated with carbon dioxide. Ask Dr. Science if you are so inclined. But I will say that it is with good reason that some folks with indoor grows supplement the air with carbon dioxide. And here we were, blessed with bud grown in air that had been naturally supplemented. Will wonders never cease?

On September 13, seven weeks after the lightning strikes, our particular fire was declared “contained.” Our roads were open. The fire camps were de-camped. The fire trucks went home to 23 states, the dozers too. And the helicopters. All gone. Life on the mountain began to feel “normal” again. But it’s a new normal. For one thing, we all know our neighbors now. Gone are the days when we shyly averted our eyes and pretended not to see each other. Now we know each other, we appreciate each other, and we are poised to cooperate with each other. For another thing, all those firemen from all those red states, coming out here to the wicked blue state of California, working side by side with growers to save the weed? Those firemen went home having learned we growers are not the evil monsters they had been led to believe we were. They found us to be family oriented, highly educated, seriously motivated, hard working tillers of the soil with necks reddened by the sun. We’ve shown political rednecks how to be actual rednecks. We’ve broken bread with anti-cannabis zealots. We’ve shared our beer and many laughs together. We’ve saved the weed together. Firefighters returned to 23 states with more objective views about cannabis cultivation. Surely that has got to count for something as our nation moves closer and closer to the decriminalization of marijuana. What was left of the crop is now harvested, trimmed, cured, and in the medicine bag.

And for all that trouble and all that terror and all that grief and all of life’s tribulations, what is the final verdict? Well folks, I don’t know about your weed, but my weed is fire. Best I’ve ever grown. All that trouble and adversity made for some seriously awesome bud. You can even open the container, squeeze a bud, and catch the slightest whiff of the mountain on fire. Just the slightest hint of a whiff. Call it “Pre-smoked Smoke” if you’d like. Out here on the mountain we call it “California Wildfire.” Try asking your local weed dispenser for some “Wildfire.” If you are so lucky as to score some, your aches and pains and whatever ails you will be much improved. You’ll see.

Submitted by Anonymous 

 

 

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