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Marijuana grow blamed for Santa Cruz mountains fire, officials say

A portable generator being used in a marijuana farm was the culprit in the devastating Loma Fire last year that destroyed 12 homes and burned thousands of acres in Santa Cruz Mountains, Cal Fire officials announced Thursday.

The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, which polices the unincorporated region off Casa Loma Road where the fire originated, is “investigating the legality of the (marijuana) operation.” No arrests have been made.

The marijuana farm in question was off Loma Chiquita Road, authorities said.

According to a source familiar with the fire probe, the property was under investigation for the fire, but that the grow was likely the work of renters. Those occupants have not been seen since the fire broke out.

Firefighters attempt to push back flames in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Loma Prieta, California on September 27, 2016.
(JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

The property owner was awaiting the completion of the fire investigation before responding to Sheriff’s detective inquiries, the source said, meaning the process of pinpointing those responsible for the grow is expected to resume.

To the Sheriff’s Office, Cal Fire’s conclusion was affirmation for the efforts of its Marijuana Eradication Team that takes aims at illegal grows, particularly in the county’s relatively untouched rural regions.

“This is why this is a serious problem. The only thing greater is if there was a loss of life,” Sheriff’s Sgt. Rich Glennon said. “People are cutting corners, whether it’s electrical or water diversion. It’s of paramount importance to run these investigations to hold people accountable for cutting those corners.”

A multi-agency squad of fire crews needed about a week to bring the blaze under control, by which point it burned 4,474 acres, according to Cal Fire. The fast-moving flames flushed hundreds of residents from their homes, but no one was killed in the fire.

The Loma Fire was the county’s most destructive wildfire linked to marijuana cultivation since the 2002 Croy Fire, which burned over 3,100 acres, destroyed 31 homes and which officials blamed on unpermitted solar panels powering an illegal marijuana grow.

The official cause of the Loma Fire also confirmed the suspicions of many residents in the area, and aligns with a crackdown on pot grows in the area in the wake of the Sept. 26, 2016 fire.

“I knew it from the minute it started,” said one fire-affected resident who asked not to be named out of safety concerns. “They do horrible things to the mountains.”

She added that the fire only worsened longstanding worries about unregulated marijuana grows in the area, and said Thursday that she could see an open-air pot farm on a ridge line across a canyon from her home. Their presence, and the violence that can accompany their maintenance, present a public-safety threat to mountain residents.

“If they think the problem is going away anytime soon, it’s not,” she said. “People just don’t get it. Only when it’s in their backyard are they going to get it.”

Santa Clara County Sheriff’s deputies remove pot plants from a home on Loma Chiquita Road in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016. The marijuana-eradication raid was in the general vicinity of where the Loma Fire began. The operation is one of a series of periodic sweeps in the area to crack down on the large mountain grows that can spark fires like the huge wildfire that just died down. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)

She commends the work of the county’s Marijuana Eradication Team chipping away at illegal grows, but laments that the size of the problem far outpaces their bandwidth.

“I’m not against marijuana. I support it when it’s regulated properly. The recreational law isn’t going to do a damn thing,” she said, alluding to the legalization of recreational marijuana set to take effect Jan. 1. “The bad guys aren’t going to get licensed.”

Glennon said that concern needs to be channeled toward helping deputies monitor the vast expanse where the farms are set up.

“We need community support, tips and information,” he said. “The environmental impact and impact as far as fire danger is real.”


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