Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on July 1, 2017.

Green Acres

The cannabis industry presents yet another challenge for rural fire departments

BY ANGELO VERZONI

FARMING REMAINS an important element of rural America. And with the expanding legalization of marijuana around the country, cultivation of another sort is also emerging as a challenge for many rural departments.

About 100 miles east of San Francisco sits Calaveras County, a 1,037-square-mile expanse with only one incorporated city. Perched on the edge of the Sierra Nevada, the county’s elevation ranges from about 600 feet above sea level to almost 5,000 feet. In recent years, the secluded, hilly community has attracted polarizing visitors in the form of marijuana growers.

The industry has been a major economic boon to the area since recreational marijuana use was legalized in California in 2016, feeding about $11 million in yearly taxes to the county, according to Coco Kelly, a firefighter with Central Calaveras Fire and Rescue. But even as marijuana production jump-starts the local economy, grow operations present unique fire safety challenges, a topic explored in NFPA Journal’s September/October 2016 cover story, “Growing Pains”.

Kelly says the county has already seen fires result from grow operations, mainly related to the generators used to power grow lamps. But she says the majority of growers want what’s best for the community, and she’s hopeful public education efforts will help stem the problem. “I know a lot of them now, so I can go to some of their meetings, and I’d love to get out there and get handouts and information to them,” Kelly says. “Most of them are highly receptive.”

As more states push to legalize medicinal and recreational pot, situations like Kelly’s will likely become more common across rural America. Statistics on marijuana production in the U.S. aren’t very detailed—state level is as granular as they get—but anecdotal evidence suggests rural cannabis production is on the rise. “Although the lion’s share of recreational cannabis is consumed in urban areas, more and more of that weed is being produced outside the city limits—often way outside,” according to a recent article on Leafly.com, an industry website.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Photograph: Getty Images