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California Wildfires Leave Cannabis Growers Quaking in their Boots

September 6, 2021 08:00 am ET
California Wildfires Leave Cannabis Growers Quaking in their Boots

Cannabis cultivators in California, where legal cannabis sales reached $2.2 billion in 2020, are growing increasingly concerned about the fate of their crops. More than a dozen wildfires are currently ripping through the state and, presently, in excess of 350,000 people are living in “high risk” fire zones.

Of the state’s 40 million residents, some 2.7 million people are believed to reside in “very high fire hazard severity zones.” As firefighters struggle to contain the fast-spreading infernos in California—8,100 wildfires erupted during the 2020 wildfire season, when almost 4.5 million acres of land was burnt to a crisp—cannabis cultivators are preparing to kiss goodbye to their harvests.

A disturbing 2018 study on wildfires discovered that flame-released pollutants can negatively impact crop and vegetation growth, even when the crops are based hundreds of kilometers from the disaster zone. This poses a serious problem for cannabis producers and growers in California, which is renowned for its wildfires; which are typically ignited by lightning, dry conditions, arsonist activity, sparks from heavy-duty equipment (chainsaws, grinders, etc.,) and faulty overhead power lines. 

California’s Wildfire Record Dates Back 90 Years

Some of the first-recorded wildfires in California date back to September 1932, when the Matilija Fire caused eight deaths and burned through 220,000 acres of Ventura County. Since the year 2000, the largest wildfires of all time have torn through “The Golden State”. The most extreme wildfires included the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire and the L.N.U. Lightning Complex fire of 2020, the latter of which obliterated 363,220 acres of land.

Prior to the 1800s, California’s landscape—an area that covers roughly 100 million acres—was much more resilient to wildfires. Nonetheless, forest and shrubland to the extent of approximately 4.4 million acres (1.8 million hectares) continued to burn each year; mainly due to the state’s dry, hot, and windy weather. Since 2000, as much as 1.59% of the total land of California has been destroyed by flames.

Cannabis Plants Can Endure Stress or Premature Death When Exposed to Wildfire Smoke 

With a cannabis market on track to earn $6.59 billion by 2025, it goes without saying that California’s wildfires are stirring up worry for industry players, such as cultivators and producers. This is especially true for people that work inside greenhouse operations and outdoor farms, where fire residue can negatively impact consumer health and lab testing procedures. 

Even in instances where fire-damaged cannabis is deemed safe for retail sale, it may not be suitable for consumption or extraction. Smoke contamination poses the biggest threat to cannabis farming/production facilities. In particular, natural woods that have been pressure-treated with chemicals like arsenic, chromium, and copper azole can pollute cannabis crops in the form of ash and soot residue, as well as fire-retardant. 

California’s Wildfires Could Result in Failed Cannabis Lab Testing

California’s cannabis cultivators are required to abide by testing regulations for harmful chemicals and residual solvents. With this in mind, it’s important to note that the poisonous chemicals released by wildfires—such as benzene, dioxins, and hydrogen cyanide—could trigger a regulatory test and/or pesticide test failure, thus increasing a cannabis producer’s liability risk. 

Moreover, UV ray plant exposure is diminished when the atmosphere is plagued by high levels of fire smoke. This is according to the Director of Cultivation Science at Steep Hill Labs, Lydia Abernethy. As a direct effect of fire smoke impurity, key plant growth processes, such as photosynthesis, transpiration, and stomatal conductance, may be stunted. 

Aside from the fierce competition, California’s cannabis farmers have a lot to contend with. With no end in sight for the wildfire crisis, farmers ought to consider their “plan B” in terms of dealing with fire and smoke damage. Cannabinoid and plant growth levels may be dwarfed when exposed to airborne toxins, which can also pose a health risk for consumers.

On that note, farmers are advised to (if possible) select an alternative growing location in the meantime. Alternatively, extensive testing should be carried out to determine the severity of contamination. Location and wind direction play an important role in understanding if a cannabis farm is in peril, so keep this in mind; preparedness is key, particularly since plants could be transferred to a safer location if they are faced with a fire hazard.

For an up-to-date view of fire activity, check out the interactive map hosted by the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS Foundation. The map can also be found on the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources website.

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Bethan Rose Jenkins
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