California Wildfires Threaten Thousands of Cannabis Farms

A cluster of California wildfires north of San Francisco have so far devoured more than 70,000 acres and killed at least 11 people, according to official reports. And though the infernos have come to be known as the “Wine Country fires,” they stand to destroy tens of millions of dollars’ worth of cannabis gardens on the outskirts of the state’s famed Emerald Triangle.

It’s one of the most devastating series of fires in recent California history, and Gov. Jerry Brown has already declared a state of emergency in affected counties. Numerous growers have been affected by mandatory evacuation orders, and some farms have already been destroyed.

“A 40 acre grow could see a loss of $32M in product.”

Prof. John Torrens, Syracuse University

Citing county surveys, David Downs of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that there could be anywhere from 3,000 to 9,000 cannabis gardens in Sonoma County alone. “County revenue from cannabis are unknown,” the paper says, “but likely total in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.”

At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said that responders—at least 20 agencies are pitching in—are still scrambling to contain the fires. A curfew has been imposed in Santa Rosa, and Sonoma authorities are urging residents to stay out of areas that have been evacuated. Mobile phone service has also been affected.

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Fires have also affected residents and businesses in Napa, Mendocino, and Yuba counties, according to local reports. Dozens have been injured, and more than 1,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed. Officials are asking individuals to report missing persons to the appropriate authorities. An emergency hotline is available at 1-707-565-3856.

The wildfires are expected to do tens of millions of dollars in damage to cannabis crops. “We have a lot of people who have lost their farms in the last 36 hours, and their homes,” Tawnie Logan, chair of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, told the Chronicle, adding that she knows of a $2 million Santa Rosa crop that was reduced to ash on Sunday night.

John Torrens, a professor of entrepreneurial practice at Syracuse University, noted that the fires comes just as much of the cannabis was nearing harvest.

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“October is the official end to the outdoor growing season. While many harvests may be underway, a considerable number of growers are in the pre- and early stages of their harvest,” he said in an email. “Some grows are as large as 40 acres. With average price per pound of cannabis being $1,000, an acre of marijuana can yield as much as $800,000 (compared to $644 for corn, $400 for soybeans and $232 for wheat). A 40 acre grow could see a loss of $32M in product.”

Unlike the numerous wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties, cannabis growers don’t have access to conventional business insurance. So-called surplus-lines insurers do offer limited coverage, but costs far exceed more mainstream plans.

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California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said last month that state officials are “very aggressively” working to persuade major commercial insurance companies to work with state-legal cannabis businesses. “We actually have one admitted commercial carrier that has filed a commercial product in California,” he said, though coverage will likely come too late to help farmers affected by the Wine Country fires.

Sonoma County officials have announced they’ll provide further updates on Tuesday evening.

Not the First Time

Facing prolonged drought, Northern California has been hit hard by fires in recent years. Around this time last year, a fire that began south of San Jose tore through cannabis gardens, destroying some crops and covering others in a layer of ash.

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