California cannabis growers face big threats. The potential damages go beyond the plant.

·7 min read

HUMBOLDT COUNTY, Calif. — Driving through a dense canopy of towering redwood and old growth fir trees in southern Humboldt County, Ryan Hale’s rental car bucked and bounced as he laid out the rules of the day.

The first point of contact, a veteran cannabis grower who asked not to be identified, would lead the way to a secluded compound deep within the Emerald Triangle, a widely known cannabis-growing region comprising Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties in northwest California.

It is the first time reporters have been allowed to tour this small corner of the Emerald Triangle, Hale said, and discretion is paramount.

“We’ve basically built our own version of Fort Knox,” he said.

Hale, partner and chief sales officer of Operational Security Solutions, a cannabis security and compliance company, has deep ties to many of the legal cultivators operating in the Emerald Triangle. His team of former military, law enforcement and federal service personnel work closely with the growers, ensuring that they meet state regulations and helping them secure cash and crops.

As drought and climate change batter the West, many outdoor growers face a new obstacle. Wildfires not only destroy crops, but they also contaminate plants if they are soaked in fire retardant or tainted by excessive smoke. Sometimes the latter is jokingly called “campfire kush.”

“The impact wildfires can have expands beyond just the plant,” said Luis Merchan, CEO of the cannabis company Flora Growth. “The growers are at risk, and we’ve seen it over a number of years.”

Cannabis plants grow in Humboldt County, Calif., where cultivators operate their own fire truck to contend with the region's fire risk. (John Brecher / for NBC News)
Cannabis plants grow in Humboldt County, Calif., where cultivators operate their own fire truck to contend with the region's fire risk. (John Brecher / for NBC News)

Last year, during California’s historic fire season, which burned 4.2 million acres across the state, Hale found himself in high demand. While some cannabis businesses were prepared with contingency plans in the event of an emergency, many were not.

“It was absolutely chaotic,” he said. “There would be brief periods of time where we would have anywhere from 15 to 25 requests for immediate solutions because of fire threat. We weren’t sure what each day was going to bring.”

Some clients called Hale as firefighters pounded on their doors instructing them to evacuate. They needed help getting money safely off their premises before wildfires or would-be thieves descended. Dozens of armored security vehicles dashed across California to pack up bundles of cash, but it could take several hours for security teams to reach remote locations like Humboldt, Hale said.

While Sacramento is the capital of the state, the Emerald Triangle is the capital of cannabis in California, if not the whole country. It started as a haven in the late 1960s for hippies and people drawn to the back-to-the-land movement, which espoused a return to nature and sustainable homesteading.

Since then, the Emerald Triangle has blossomed into a mecca for both legal and illegal cannabis.

Humboldt County began licensing once-clandestine operations in 2016 under the state’s medical marijuana program, and it expanded cultivation licenses in 2018, when recreational cannabis became legal in California. Of the 7,951 cultivation license holders in the state, nearly 3,000 are in the Emerald Triangle, and 1,702 of those are in Humboldt County, according to the state Department of Cannabis Control.

Drawn to the promise of cashing in on the new green rush, growers from all over — including Mexico, Bulgaria and Laos — flocked to the region, gobbling up land and diverting water for their crops.

But the Emerald Triangle is also home to generations of local growers. Some of the younger ones were born into the trade while their elders made the transition from black market operators to fully licensed cultivators. Among them is a farmer and fire chief named Manning, who is being identified by only his middle name to protect his identity.

Tired of waiting for outside fire agencies — some of which must use helicopters to reach the area — to respond to wildfires in remote terrain, Manning is working to create the area’s first fire district as drought and wildfires threaten the historically verdant region. He must coordinate with the county to establish the department’s mission and draw boundary lines and then secure enough local support to get the issue on a ballot.

“The goal is to get to the fire really quickly because we live here,” he said.

In Humboldt County, where growers and other residents prefer to keep to themselves, the threat of wildfire is ever-present and costly. Some cannabis cultivators have resorted to building their own fire rigs using trucks, hoses and water drums.

Almost all of the fire departments in the county rely on volunteer firefighters who do not receive salaries. The departments are largely self-funded through donations, fundraising and grants, and the money they raise pays for projects like maintaining firehouses and buying equipment.

“We’ve been the rebel hippie fire department forever,” Manning said of his all-volunteer crew.

He replaced an aging 1980s fire engine this summer with a new one that cost about $150,000. It was recently parked in Manning's driveway, which doubles as a runway for his small aircraft.

The King Range in Humboldt County, Calif., typically has wet winters and dry weather in summer. The drought year saw the rain stop early. (John Brecher / for NBC News)
The King Range in Humboldt County, Calif., typically has wet winters and dry weather in summer. The drought year saw the rain stop early. (John Brecher / for NBC News)

Manning’s house — surrounded by fruit trees, a chicken coop and panoramic views of the surrounding forest — faces a ridge ravaged by the 2003 Canoe Fire, which devoured nearly 14,000 acres in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The fire, which was caused by a series of lightning strikes, was considered a rarity for coastal redwood trees, which are typically fire-resistant, according to a 2007 U.S. Forest Service report. But rugged terrain, high winds and low humidity created the perfect conditions for a lengthy wildfire fight.

The same conditions have become common in the years since the Canoe Fire. Fueled by drought, climate change and poor forest management, wildfires consume millions of acres of land in the West year over year, endangering communities and forcing residents to flee or fend for themselves.

Volunteer firefighters were among the first to respond during the Canoe Fire, Manning said.

“We found them, and we put them out,” he said. “They were everywhere, and everybody was going crazy.”

Long before Manning and other homesteaders moved into the region, the lush forests of Humboldt were plundered by generations of what he said was “rapacious logging” that left behind loose dirt, which washed down into the rivers and creeks, filling them with gravel and sand.

Water has steadily become a precious commodity in Humboldt and throughout California. Once-flowing rivers are bone dry, while boats remain moored in receding lakes.

The county, one of 50 under a drought state of emergency, is experiencing severe to extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Gov. Gavin Newsom asked all California residents this summer to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15 percent. He also joined other Western governors in asking the Biden administration to declare a drought disaster, which would free up federal resources to help affected communities.

Already, the ponds on Manning’s property, which he relies on for drinking and watering his cannabis crops, are at about half capacity from personal use and evaporation. The last big rain fell in March, and another one is not expected until the fall at the earliest. In the last two years, he has measured about 30 inches of rain, down from 90 inches or even 120 inches in years past.

A golden retriever named Amber stands near a rain catchment pond that's nearly dry in Humboldt County, Calif. (John Brecher / for NBC News)
A golden retriever named Amber stands near a rain catchment pond that's nearly dry in Humboldt County, Calif. (John Brecher / for NBC News)

While some of his neighbors install wires over their ponds to prevent firefighting agencies from getting access to them by helicopter during water drops, Manning’s ponds remain unguarded. Paw prints and hoof marks dot one pond that is especially low.

“I leave this one for the wildlife,” he said.

Manning estimates that he has about 50 days of water left. His cannabis crops need at least 1,500 gallons a day.

“It’s going to be tight. We’re going to be draining everything by the time this is over,” he said. “Usually it starts to rain again in October and November — that feels like a ways away.”

Asked how he will fill his new firetruck if the state’s worsening drought continues to drain local water sources, Manning took a long pause and said: “That’s the big question, isn’t it?”

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