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Why are Firefighters Endangering Us?



Make no mistake, I like our firefighters. But something wrong and dangerous is going on. It needs to change, and I'm ragging on our supervisors.

I've talked to several chiefs. They agree 70 to 90 percent of rural structure fires are marijuana grow-related. We're talking diesel and electrical. Amateur wiring jobs and sloppy generators with negligent fuel storage. Diesel transported in numerous 5-gallon jugs in the back of a car, big diesel tankers crossing unsound bridges — remember Freshwater Creek? — to deliver hundreds of gallons to a plastic pipe disappearing into the woods. Lt. Kenny Swithenbank told me it's not if, but when, a big fire will come from these.

I first came here in 1968 and witnessed how it went. Firefighters came to fires and turned in the grows. Next time, the fire trucks found the roads blocked by freshly felled trees. Firefighters realized they couldn't be at war with the community and a shroud of silence about grows descended. I've inspected official fire reports, and most grow fires are shown as something else, some other cause. Cal Fire wouldn't even tell me the cost of suppression. Recently an apparent hash lab blow-up and fire was entered into the record as a "smoke check."

Why are our supes sitting on their hands? There's nothing in their proposed grow ordinance (scheduled to get its first hearing in front of the planning commission in November) about this fire threat. I work with HUMMAP, the Humboldt Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Project, an organization of organic growers. In 2008 we proposed an ordinance to certify these fuel tanks to reduce the fire threat. Many tanks being used for fuel are plastic, designed only for water. In a fire the plastic will melt and release a wall of flaming fuel. But evening phone calls from a fuel company to supervisors killed our effort.

Stop! Let's get an annual summary from the fire people that honestly and completely reports all grow-related fires. It does not have to name names, but we want data that makes our supes — and Sacramento — wake up. Otherwise, self-interested phone calls in the evening will lead to many deaths and hundreds of burned homes. Hear this warning!

There are many problems with generator grows besides the horrible fire danger. They are off the grid which means they are back in the woods where they don't belong, severely degrading habitat for interior-dependent species. Removal of merely 15 percent of the canopy for clearings and roads creates serious impacts, according to research biologists. Hiding back in the woods also correlates with trashing — I've seen plastic diapers and feces strewn around a backwoods grow.

Grow lights are extremely energy inefficient, as several professional studies have dramatically shown. Our own Schatz Energy scientists Peter Lehman and Peter Johnstone wrote in the North Coast Journal in 2010 that growing marijuana under lights is "expensive, it's bad for the environment, and it's wasteful." In that year, energy usage in Humboldt County rose to six times the state average, and that rise is due to grow lights — a huge carbon footprint. Generator fuel often spills into creeks, poisoning aquatic life and rendering precious water unusable — remember Hacker Creek and numerous others?

Add to these the most frequent complaint about generator grows: their noise. No one moved here to endure generators' constant caustic growling, which is now everywhere. The noise also damages wildlife that depends on hearing, such as owls. And all night, there's pollution from bright lights.

There are many issues — like fire — that are unaccountably missing from the draft ordinance. But here's a bap from a cluebat: The county modeled its plan on California Cannabis Voice Humboldt's proposal. Major funders of that draft ordinance were subjects of the big raid out at Island Mountain this summer — where officials found more than 86,500 plants and documented significant environmental damage. Isn't it blatant that their ordinance is strictly about max profits and little responsibility? Did they care about fires, about carbon footprint, about vanishing wildlife?

And why is it they never would admit what a small grow is, but insisted in calling a monster grow "small?" The county's version is an imitation.

So a bigger question is, why are the supes admiring these people and giving them high priority?

Marijuana should never be grown under lights off the grid. We have to quit playing to the greedhead crooks, many of whom do not even live here, or we'll have to face the fires. To begin with, generator grows are always bad news. Will the supes ever figure it out? Tell them, please.

Robert "Woods" Sutherland, a founding member of the Humboldt Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Project, resides near Ettersburg. He'd like to discover a publisher for a book that is dear to his heart. Any help out there?

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