Cannabis, ecology and the California fires

CaliforniaThe year 2020's record-breaking wildfires in California and other Western states have compounded the grim impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic—and have similarly been politicized. Thus far, the blow they have dealt to the burgeoning cannabis industry has been well weathered. But this will clearly pose a growing challenge in the years to come—as those parts of the country where legal cannabis cultivation is most advanced are also the most vulnerable to this devastating sign of ecological disequilibrium.

With fires emerging in August and now extending into December, authorities are having to rethink the notion of a discrete "fire season" in California. The total acreage burned across the state exceeded 4 million according to the CalFire tracking page—more than any year since record-keeping began in the 1932. Among several major fire systems statewide, the August Complex, centering on the Emerald Triangle counties of Mendocino and Trinity, passed the one-million-acre mark, prompting coinage of an entirely new term: "gigafire."

From its monitoring instruments on the International Space Station, NASA determined that particulate matter from the fires was actually dispersing through the stratosphere, a previously unknown phenomenon with still unknown impacts on global climate.

Some 35 lives were lost across the West Coast, and in mid-September the skies above even the heavily urban San Francisco Bay Area turned an eerie orange.

Air pollution levels were at historic highs, raising especially grim questions amid the COVID-19 pandemic—such as whether the poor air could worsen respiratory woes associated with the disease.

Questions were actually raised about a near-future inhabitability of the Golden State. Writer Bill McKibben asked, "Has the climate crisis made California too dangerous to live in?"

2020 also saw record-breaking wildfires in Colorado, while the fires that ravaged Oregon were termed "unprecedented" by Gov. Kate Brown.

All three states have seen a legal cannabis industry take hold in recent years. What does the evidently fast-changing climate in these states portend for that industry's future prosperity—or, perhaps, survival?

Was the 2020 harvest damaged?
The question won some media attention where another mainstay mood-altering substance wth a connoisseur clientele was concerned—California’s wine industry. The devastating Glass Fire damaged, if not destroyed, nearly 30 wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties.

But outright crop loss was far from the only problem. The foodie website Civil Eats warned: "In grapes, smoke damage imparts a burnt, ashy, even medicinal taste to the resulting wine. When wood burns, it releases volatile compounds, called phenols, which can bind to grape sugars, only to be released during fermentation." And the account added: "Cannabis may also be similarly impacted by volatile compounds, and possibly other chemicals if buildings—and not just wildlands—burned nearby." 

John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, told the agriculture trade journal Capital Press that high-end wineries are reluctant to produce from grapes exposed to smoke. Aguirre estimated the 2020 wildfires resulted in up to $500 million in crop losses statewide just from canceled or reduced grape contracts. California winegrapes are worth $4 billion annually "at the farm gate," with Oregon and Washington clocking in at about $597 million combined. “Obviously, we can’t sustain these types of losses going forward and continue doing what we do,” Aguirre said.

Cannabis is also a product prized for flavor, and an industry that has emulated viniculture in cultivating a cachet of terroir. Yet how the fires impacted cannabis (with a legal sector exceeding $3 billion in sales in 2019) has received less attention.

The University of California's Berkeley Cannabis Research Center is undertaking a study of the question. With a grant from the state Bureau of Cannabis Control, the BCRC is preparing to interview growers across California on their experiences amid the devastation—crop losses or damage, impacts on sales, mitigation techniques. The study, to be dubbed Cannabis & Wildfire Risk: Current Conditions, Future Threats & Solutions for Farmers, will be released by the end of 2021, and will include a policy brief especially aimed at counties and localities.

BCRC environmental science researcher Christopher Dillis is direct about the daunting reality. "2019 was a record-setter and 2020 beat that," he tells Project CBD. "Hopefully 2021 won’t beat that again."

The good news from preliminary surveys is that direct crop loss was "miniscule," Dillis says. "The number of cannabis farms that burned in the state is below five percent of the total. Smoke damage is really what were talking about." 

Dillis sees one possible unanticipated outcome of the fires for the legal industry as a "competitive assymetry with the unpermitted market." Illicit-market cannabis, of course, does not have to pass muster with the California Department of Food & Agriculture. "Smoke-damaged weed may still be sellable on the unpermitted market even though it may not meet standards for the regulated industry. And the new regulated industry is already having a hard time competing with an unpermitted market that is untaxed and not subject to regulation." 

And he notes the irony that the area of the state most impacted by the fires corresponds to the legacy cannabis heartland of the Emerald Triangle—where small producers still predominate. Comparatively unscathed were Santa Barbara and the Central Valley's Yolo County, where the practice of "license stacking" has allowed cannabis "megafarms" to emerge in spite of official limits on the size of licensed plots. 

Dillis acknowledges this could be a difficult impact to measure. "I haven't heard anything about testing failures from wildfire smoke," he says. "But that could be because the growers are not bothering to submit because they know the harvest is unpalatable."  

Word from the Laboratories
Robert Martin, CEO of CW Analytical cannabis testing laboratory in Oakland, says that so far the worst fears of growers have not been realized. 

"One grower in Mendocino had inches of ash on his crop, and it didn't show a lot of what we usually test for," Martin tells Project CBD.  "We have had some complaints about off-flavor, but we didn't find any toxic compounds; he was able to sell his product just fine. We were really surprised. We were mostly catching carbonate," which is not a health risk in the quantities involved, he says. "The bigger impact was actual burning of fields. About 10% of our clients in Mendocino lost their crops to the fires."

As far as flower quality goes, Martin raises concern about creosote—the phenol-rich wood-tar that was the main culprit in degrading the quality of the grape harvest. But this is mostly an aesthetic question rather than a health one. "We didn't test for creosote because there's no state standard for it," Martin says. "We didn't see any other compounds, so we assume it was mostly creosote. We were expecting arsenic, lead, cesium, mercury, iron. But we didn't see anything in dangerous levels."

Some of those compounds are found in trees but more are from human structures. Dangerous heavy metals such as arsenic and lead are more likely to be in smoke from fires in urban areas. However, contamination from naturally occurring arsenic in the soil has long been a concern with rice—one of the key crops of the Central Valley.  

Only a small percentage of the crop CW Analytical tested was actually rejected, Martin says—while a larger percentage of his clients' crop was lost to fire than ever before. 

Martin notes that one unforeseen result of the fires was caterpillar infestations. "Caterpillars attacked cannabis this year due to smoke driving away moths from forest into agricultural areas. They laid their eggs in flowers, and we saw infestation like we'd never seen before—hundreds on a plant." And this wasn't just seen in the Emerald Triangle but also in the Central Valley. "A moth can travel a hundred miles if it wants to. Just like wildcats and other wildlife are entering suburban neighborhoods due to the fires—same principle." 

And there were other impacts. "A lot of agriculture aspects were affected by the smoke," Martin says, citing reports from CW's clients. "Plants didn't mature well, and lost their aroma due to ash. The more aromatic a cannabis flower the more it's valued by the consumer, so those producing for the specialty flower market were hit the hardest. A lot of the harvest will probably be used to make concentrates and oils, where flavor isn't that important."

He also notes that indoor growers were of course not affected, which could give a boost to that sector of the industry.

A windfall for remediation?
Jill Ellsworth is founder and chief executive officer of Willow Industries, a Colorado-based company with an Oakland facility that specializes in cannabis remediation and decontamination. The company's patented Willowpure system treats finished flower that had been cured and trimmed. The device's chamber infuses with ozone gas that oxidizes mold, bacteria, yeast "or anything that could be pathogenic for human consumption and would not pass state testing," Ellsworth says, adding that the process does not disrupt potency or terpene levels.

The Oakland facility opened in 2019, while the company has been bringing in equipment for on-site cleaning at grow facilities in Colorado since 2015. Flower that has failed testing has passed a second screening after the treatment, she says. She also emphasizes adherence to standards for the company's own technology: "Ozone is a dangerous gas, so we take necessary measures to assure safety." 

"We're definitely hearing from clients around California of plants impacted by smoke," she says. "We're getting flower affected with a smoky flavor. Ozone is typically used to get rid of unpleasant smells, so we are in the middle of research and development now to see if we can get rid of the smoky taste." And there's an urgency to this R&D, she stresses. "Growers can't sit on their harvest." Ellsworth says the method is being tested free of charge on a 70-pound batch from Southern Humboldt. "We'll see how that goes and maybe do the client's entire harvest."   

The Colorado fires don't seem to have impacted the harvest in that state, Ellsworth says. The Centennial State's "weedbasket" of commercial outdoor cultivation has emerged in the county of Pueblo, on the edge of the Great Plains and well to the east of the forested Rocky Mountain areas that were badly hit by the blazes. But there are also small outdoor farms scattered throughout the Rockies in Colorado, Ellsworth notes. "There, we thought it might be an issue. But so far, no."   

Ellsworth also notes widespread reports from California growers of early flowering this year—due to sunlight being blocked by smoke. This cuts short the critical vegetative stage of growth, and can mean reduced yields.

The cannabis community has been grappling with the question of possible hazards from smoke-damaged flower at least since the California fires of 2017. It's important to note that cannabis smoke—even from untainted, organic plants—also contains carcinogens. However, smoking cannabis has not been linked to increased risk of lung cancer—possibly because THC, CBD and other cannabinoids have anti-carcinogenic properties.

The hemp crop: damage assessment pending
Researchers at Oregon State University are convening a new working group to study the effects of wildfire smoke on the 2020 hemp crop in the impacted states—that is, the harvest of non-psychoactive cannabis. Jeffrey Steiner, associate director of OSU’s Global Hemp Innovation Center, told Project CBD: "There's a lot of concern here on the West Coast as to the effects of smoke compounds on hemp crop quality and safety. We rapidly pulled together a cross-section of sectors in the hemp industry, from production to processing to testing laboratories, to get a pulse of what problems they might be experiencing."
The GHIC was just founded last year—right on time to address the fire crisis, even if that wasn't the intention. "We're here as a land-grant institution, trying to see what can we do to help farmers know better how to produce and process and move their crops along," Steiner says. "Then the fires hit. How can we rapidly respond to help farmers be successful even in a bad year like this?"

A part of this work will be monitoring test results on hemp flower intended for CBD extraction, to get a handle on the contamination question. "We know growers in Oregon, California and Washington have been washing ash off crop. Are elevated heavy metals being deposited by the ash? A lot of the harvest is still off at laboratories being analyzed. Results over the next weeks will help establish what we should be looking for in the future."

Steiner again notes the analogy to viniculture—but stresses its limits. "For the last 10 years, starting with the fires in Australia, compounds in smoke have been affecting the quality of winegrapes. Flavor-changing compounds can end up in the wine. But with hemp, there's no fermentation going on, and no acid conditions; the compounds are not interacting with grape juice. And here in Oregon, nearly all of the hemp crop is for essential oils with compounds such as CBD. So flavor is not so important."

And he also sees a likely impact on yields. "The crop in Oregon probably didn't grow as fast due to overcast conditions from the fires, which caused temperatures to drop up to 10 degrees in September."     

Ironically, a part of what may have spared the industry in Oregon was depressed production in 2020, correcting for a hemp and cannabis glut. "This year, only about 20% of acreage was under cultivation compared to last year, due to overproduction."

Growers resist evacuation
The fires placed growers in a quandary when mandatory evacuation orders were issued—and many in the Emerald Triangle opted for defiance. Inside Climate News took an uncharacteristic look at cannabis, noting that "climate change-fueled weather disasters" have ironically displaced law enforcement as the biggest threat California cultivators face since legalization. 

The report noted the dilemma that cannabis-based communities faced when the August Complex swept through the Triangle. "In tiny towns shrouded by forests, pot growers have stared down evacuation orders as if they were bar room dares. Despite warnings that firefighters would not risk their lives for people who refused to leave when ordered, most growers, law enforcement officials said, stayed to defend their crops from fire and thieves."   

The Los Angeles Times reported from Trinity Pines, a backwoods community in Trinity County that is home to some 40 legal farms, with more than 10 times that number of illicit grows hidden in the bush. Growers there overwhelmingly chose to face down death rather than leave their precious plots to fate. Among the holdouts were numerous Hmong families, originally from Laos, who have moved to the area in recent years, attracted by the cannabis economy.

Seng Alex Vang, a member of the Hmong community in the Central Valley and a lecturer in ethnic studies at California State University-Stanislaus, said of the Hmong growers:  "I believe a lot of them put their life savings into this marijuana grow." If their farms were consumed by the flames, "it's a total loss."

For illicit growers in the community, mistrust of authorities, and perhaps confusion as to the distinction between law enforcement and firefighters, may have contributed to a determination that they were better off handling the situation themselves.

Climate change or forest management?
The question of the root causes of the West Coast fires has—inevitably, given the current polarization in the country—become pathologically politicized. As with the pandemic and the efficacy of face-masks, what should be a matter of objective science has taken on a bitterly partisan tone.
This became especially evident when President Trump threatened to withhold approval of a disaster relief package for California before finally blinking and signing it in mid-October. Trump changed his mind after a visit to the state, where he was petitioned by Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials. Trump insisted the fires were due to poor forest management, suggesting state officials were to blame—rather an irony, given that nearly 60% of California's forests are actually managed by the US Forest Service and other federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management.  

The secretary of California's Natural Resources Agency, Wade Crowfoot, admonished the president at a Sacramento meeting that the wildfires could not be entirely blamed on forest management. "We want to work with you to really recognize the changing climate, and what it means to our forests," Crowfoot said. "If we ignore that science, and sort of put our head in the sand, and think it's all about vegetation management, we're not going to succeed together protecting Californians." 

When Trump dismissively predicted that the climate would "start getting cooler," Crowfoot replied, "I wish science agreed with you." Trump shot back: "I don't think science knows." The response won jeers from environmentalists, and his presidential contender Joe Biden labelled Trump a "climate arsonist."

There is little doubt that California's climate is changing. On Sept. 22, the New York Times reported: "Last month, before the skies over San Francisco turned a surreal orange, Death Valley reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest temperature ever measured on the planet." And as Cristian Proistosescu of the Atmospheric Sciences Department at the University of Illinois tweeted: "Don't think of it as the warmest month of August in California in the last century. Think of it as one of the coolest months of August in California in the next century."

And there was a depressing sense of inevitability to it. A July study in Nature found that "even fully removing anthropogenic emissions is unlikely to have a discernible impact before mid-century."

Fire suppression: part of the problem?
On the other hand, columnist George Skelton asserted in the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 21 that the experience in the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir of Mexico's Baja California state (starting about 75 miles south of the border) provides "proof that climate change is not the primary cause of horrific Western wildfires." He argued that until the 1970s fires started by lightning in this range were allowed to burn themselves out. "The result of nature’s management is a forest that’s practically in mint condition, resistant to fire and disease." In a 2003 wildfire that swept through the range, 80% of the trees survived.

Skelton quoted UC Berkeley fire science professor Scott Stephens, who has studied the Baja range for 20 years. "Every time I go down to that place it astounds me how well that area has been able to adapt to climate change," Stephens said. "Climate change certainly has hit that place too. But it's doing well."

As National Public Radio noted, forests do need periodic fires to regenerate. Researcher Kimiko Barrett at the Montana-based firm Headwaters Economics calls this the "wildfire paradox." He told NPR: "For a century and more now we've been intentionally excluding wildfires from the landscape in the effort to protect homes and communities. And in doing so we are aggravating the problem into the future."

There's little doubt that the situation is also aggravated by climate change. In August, researchers at the Plumas National Forest in the northern Sierra Nevada were surprised to find that sticks and logs they'd gathered to assess fire risk had a moisture level of just 2%. This was the lowest ever recorded in 15 years of measurements at the research site. Two weeks later, the Plumas exploded into the North Complex fire—one of the largest and deadliest in California history, killing 15 people and consuming an area the size of Los Angeles.

"Around the state, we're seeing record-low fuel moistures. It's helping drive a lot of the extreme fire behavior," Craig Clements, director of the Fire Weather Research Laboratory at San Jose State University, told Environment & Energy News.

But some took issue with the media's narrow focus on the scale of the fires. "Even within a single fire, we have to be able to distinguish between the good and the bad, and focusing on area burned doesn't allow us to do that," sad Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at UC Merced, writing in the journal Nature.

Kolden told National Public Radio: "If you don't allow fire to burn in those places regularly, you get a build up of too many trees, too much shrubs in the understory and that is what we have seen is driving a lot of these really large fires."

While the 4 million acres lost across California in 2020 may seem a staggering figure, scholars increasingly believe it's on par with what typically burned in a year in the territory that now makes up the state for many centuries before European contact—when Native American peoples used fire to shape the landscape. 

"We have not been adapting," Ernesto Alvarado of the Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory in Seattle told NPR. "We will never be Native Americans, but we can be indigenous to the land. And one of the things we need to accept: this place burns. The West burns."

Reviving 'cultural burns'
To make sense of this, Project CBD turned to Don Hankins of the Chico State University Geography Department, who spoke to NPR  over the summer about the traditional practice of "cultural burning" by California's Native American peoples—and the lessons this custom may hold for the current crisis.

Hankins, an expert in the new field of "pyrogeography," did his UC Davis dissertation on riparian use of fire by the Moklumne and other indigenous peoples in the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada foothills. He is himself of the Plains Miwok, a related people in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area.

In addition to studying the history of "cultural burns," he is also working to revive the practice at the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve and Butte Creek Ecological Preserve, both run by the state university. "We are doing prescribed burns in the chaparral, so I get to apply the knowledge I have in that landscape," Hankins tells Project CBD, referring to California's distinctive brushlands.

The nearby Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria is also involved in these efforts. Bridging academics and Native American communities in this work is a part of what Hankins calls "building synergies for promoting an indigenous stewardship across the state, that includes fire."

Hankins traces the first policies against burning to a 1793 proclamation by the Spanish governor of what was then the New Spain province of Alta California.  Under United States rule, the dogma of fire suppression began around 1910, but Native communities in remote areas continued to burn up until the 1930s, Hankins says. "Tribal knowledge about burning was maintained in some places and in other places not, due to lack of land." By 1910, the Native population of California had plummeted due to a systematic campaign of extermination after the Gold Rush. Local governments actually placed bounties on Native American heads. Some early land barons of Yankee California like John Bidwell and Leland Stanford offered protection from bounty hunters—but in the form of indentured servitude on their holdings.  

This grim work rapidly undid what Hankins calls a tradition of cultural burning going back many hundreds of years. "Each ecosystem in California has made traditional use of fire and has resources related to fire that were used culturally," he says.  

Hankins cites the work of Canadian scholar Henry T. Lewis, whose 1974 study Patterns of Indian Burning in California "identified 73 reasons California Indians used fire—maintaining travel corridors, preparing soil for tobacco planting, removing bugs, harvesting sticks of willow and hazel for baskets. Fires gives slender, supple sticks for weaving. They set fires in rings to concentrate grasshoppers, and roasted them to be consumed. They burned at different times of year to produce those effects."

And while Hankins believes such fires may have actually affected as many acres as were burned in 2020—or more—they were largely kept under control. "It's a question of knowing your ecosystem and reading the landscape you're burning in—where is a fire naturally going to go from the area where you're setting it? Moisture is a break on fire spreading while wind carries fire, so knowing those conditions is knowing where fire is going to naturally go. People had to know this, because you didn't have fire trucks back in the old days."  

Ecologically sound fires: not an oxymoron
And, critically, the carbon emission levels from these traditional fires was considerably lower on a per-acre basis than in today's wildfires. Hankins this year served as science advisor to an online presentation by the California Air Resources Board, entitled "California Wildfire Emission Estimates." The presentation stressed that "fire models can represent historical conditions," and that "1 acre burned then ≠ [does not equal] 1 acre burned now." 

The presentation cited the work of the aforementioned Scott Stephens at Berkeley, who in a 2007 study estimated that before 1800 (when European settlement of California began in earnest) up to 12 million acres burned annually—but not in the massive and uncontrolled infernos that consumed only a third as many acres in 2020. And while the carbon dioxide emissions per acre today are estimated at a daunting 27 megatons, before 1800 they were placed at far more modest 7.5 megatons.

These figures were arrived at through an analysis of tree-rings and tree ages in surviving old-growth forests. This living record of when fires occurred n turn allowed an estimate of what the fuel load in the forests would have been at the time. Hankins believes that indigenous controlled burning cleared out the underbrush and areas of dense growth, while big trees survived. "Such practices maintained fuel densities at manageable levels. With the fire suppression beginning in 1910, you start getting fuel accumulation."

A 1996 study by the US Forest Service's Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project similarly found a greater density of trees in the forests of the range in yester-century. "If you look at photos of Yosemite Valley from 1860s," Hankins notes, "you see more open woodlands, with the conifers spaced far apart. With the close canopy we see today, that changes the nature of fire."

And the pre-1800 indigenous burns were spread out over the year, rather than concentrated in what is today seen as a "fire season" in California, from August to October. "Routine maintenance of fire within the landscape minimized fuel load and related emissions," Hankins says. "We have an accumulation of fuel load today that is being volatilized each year."

Applying indigenous knowledge today
But how can this knowledge be applied in the super-developed California of today? Emulating the practices of pre-1800 times, Hankins actually calls for burning more acreage than was burned in 2020. "We’d need to burn 6 million acres annually gong forward to maintain healthy ecosystems," he says. But again—these would be controlled burns, not the all-consuming voracious wildfires we saw in 2020. And they would be carried out with a sensitivity to place and the forest succession.

"Oak woodlands require frequent fires to maintain themselves—every two or three years. Otherwise it gets too dense and doesn't allow photosynthesis. While in grassland spaces where oaks are trying to get established, they need 10 years or more without fire."

But he acknowledges: "Many of those woodlands and grasslands are missing today, due to farmland and development."

Urbanization, of course, has also had an impact on shaping the fires. "There are 40 times more people living in the state today than in 1800, and especially more people in the wildland-urban interface," Hankins says. "So there's been some shifting on where and when fires are taking place. When fires are started by powerlines or people flicking cigarettes out windows, it isn’t fires that are thought-out as the indigenous burning was. These ignitions nowadays are happening under conditions in which people are not paying attention." He notes the role of the Santa Ana winds in Southern California and Diablo Winds in Northern California in spreading fires in recent years. Before 1800, "people wouldn't have been burning under those conditions."

For all his emphasis on a new kind of forestry practice, Hankins definitely sees climate change as a big pat of what is driving the current disaster. Asked to weigh the respective importance of climate and forestry, he replies: "It’s a mix—you can't pin a specific number on it, there's too many parameters. I see the impacts of climate change in the extension of the dry season—20 years ago you could expect rainfall by early October; now that's not happening so much. Rains don't start until November or December. When you get drought stress in the trees, you have greater risk of fire moving into the canopy."

But the mismanagement compounds this reality. "The density of trees allows for competition for resources like water, so the drought stress point is reached faster in more dense forest. It’s not just one factor, it's several factors at play." 

He's also skeptical of arguments for increased logging to keep density in check. "Doing it with chainsaws is time-consuming for the scale that needs to be done, and not even feasible in a lot landscapes where the topography bars equipment but not fire." He also points out carbon emissions from fossil fuels burned by chainsaws. In contrast, he believes controlled burns can actually assist in "carbon sequestration," or keeping carbon locked into features of the landscape rather being released into the atmosphere. "If you do it at the right time of year and the right conditions, fires put biochar in the soil, which helps with moisture retention as well as controlling greenhouse gases."

The US National Parks Service is beginning to take up these ideas. Hankins notes that at Lassen National Park, home of the dormant volcano which is the southernmost of the Cascade peaks, prescribed burns are being carried out, and there is a fire ecologist on staff. Hankins says this change of consciousness within the Parks Service began with the 1963 Leopold Report—officially dubbed Wildlife Management in the National Parks, and carried out for the Interior Department by naturalist A. Starker Leopold. Hankins views the report as a first step in official reconsideration of the fire-suppressionist dogma.

But bringing such practices closer to the suburbs, exurbs and even cities raises a political dilemma—will contemporary Californians be able to adapt to this reality?

"We're going to have to change our attitude about fire," Hankins says. "If you want a healthy landscape you're going to have to accept some smoke and recognize that it's a part of the environment that you're in—as it was for thousands of years of human occupation in California."   

The politics of fire
Such ideas were first brought into public consciousness in the perhaps unfortunately provocative form of the essay by Los Angeles historian and urbanist Mike Davis, "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn," which appeared in his 1998 book Ecology of Fear.  Wrote Davis: "Fire in Malibu has a relentless, staccato rhythm. The rugged coastline is scourged by a large fire, on average, every two and a half years, and at least once a decade a blaze in the chaparral grows into a terrifying firestorm consuming hundreds of homes in an inexorable march across the mountains to the sea… And it will only get worse. Such periodic disasters are inevitable as long as private residential development is tolerated in the fire ecology of the Santa Monicas."

Rather than a hopeless quest to obliterate the fundamentals of the locale, Davis posed the answer in restraints on development. This seemingly radical idea was raised by figures far more revered than the contemporary Professor Davis after the devastating Decker Canyon fire of 1930 (which was small potatoes compared to the recent maelstroms). Davis wrote:

In hindsight, the 1930 fire should have provoked a historic debate on the wisdom of opening Malibu to further development. Indeed, a few months before the conflagration, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.—the nation’s foremost landscape architect and designer of the California State Park system—had advocated public ownership of at least 10,000 acres of the most scenic beach and mountain landscape between Topanga and Point Dume. Despite a further series of fires in 1935, 1936 and 1938, which destroyed almost 400 homes in Malibu and Topanga Canyon, public officials stubbornly disregarded the conservationist common sense of Olmsted’s proposal.

But when Southern California was ravaged by fires again in 2007, a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal that October took aim not at developers who built luxury homes in fire-prone areas but conservationists seeking to preserve the remnants of the natural biota. It especially singled out for criticism the California Chaparral Institute as a culprit behind the fires that left half a million displaced. The article also approvingly cited LA County supervisors who blasted the California Coastal Commission for adopting the group's sentimental ideas. Wrote the Journal: "In the 15 or so wildfires that have ravaged hundreds of square miles in Southern California in the past few days, chaparral has been the primary fuel. Whipped by strong winds, the fire has spread across this vegetation, consuming some 1,500 homes along the way."

Since then, there has been some change in media perceptions of the question. Even the New York Times, in its in-depth feature on climate change and the 2020 fires wrote in September: 
After a deadly spate of Western blazes in 1910, the United States government scaled up its firefighting force, committing to extinguish wildfires wherever they occurred. For decades, that worked, giving Americans confidence that they could move into forested areas and remain safe.

But that policy led to a buildup of dense vegetation in the nation’s forests, which, when combined with a warmer and drier climate means that those forests are increasingly primed to burn bigger and hotter, overwhelming the nation’s firefighting capacity.

Going forward, experts said, the country will have to shift its mentality and learn to live with fire. States and communities will need to impose tougher regulations on homes built in fire-prone areas. Federal agencies will have to focus on managing forests better, selectively thinning some areas and even preventively setting controlled fires in others to burn off excess vegetation that can fuel runaway blazes.
More reports are heard of efforts to revive the practice of fighting fire with fire.

Quartz news site in September noted the efforts of the Karuk Tribe, whose lands straddle Humboldt and Siskiyou counties, in helping to craft the Somes Bar Integrated Fire Management Project with local authorities and the Forest Service, calling for strategic forest thinning through controlled burns.  NPR reported on similar efforts by the North Fork Mono tribe in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Madera County, who won the right to revive the practice of controlled burns on their lands. 

Cannabis and restoring the balance

The cannabis economy is most deeply entrenched in precisely the part of the country where wildfires are likely to be the biggest challenge in the coming years. Illicit cultivation has certainly taken an ecological toll that can deepen the impacts of fires on the land—and continues to do so, where it persists. Unpermitted and unregulated grading at cannabis grows exacerbates erosion, which is also aggravated when forests are consumed by fire. Species loss is driven by habitat destruction—and also by irresponsible use of pesticides and poisons at outlaw grows.

Daylighting the industry with legalization was looked to as a way to end these abuses. But the legal cannabis industry, like all commercial agriculture, also takes ecological tolls—such as unsustainable irrigation (even if cannabis requires far less water than traditional California crops like rice and broccoli).

A conscious ecological ethic will be necessary if the cannabis industry in California and the Pacific Northwest is to be a responsible player in an increasingly challenging environment.  

Hunter Neubauer is co-founder and chairman of Oregrown, a cannabis producer and processing facility in Deschutes County, on the eastern side or Oregon's Cascades. It has retail outlets in Bend, the county seat, as well as Portland and Cannon Beach, with fourth about to open in Eugene. The grow site has both greenhouse and indoor operations. 

The Oregrown facility was threatened by the fires, although not actually scathed. "We had fires to the north and south, so we were pretty much surrounded," Neubauer tells Project CBD. "We lost light in the greenhouses, and our yield was affected. But the quality of the product was not impacted."

"It's something the industry is going to have to deal with moving forward," he says. "Climate change is affecting cannabis cultivation, like all agriculture. But our practices can make a difference. Using lab-created pesticides and fungicides and constant tilling breaks down the essential microorganisms and fungus networks in the soil—the mycelium. This is stripping nutrients and contaminating the soil. Mycelium and soil health have been destroyed all over the planet. The soil we use to grow our crops is changing drastically."

And this is another area where agricultural practices can contribute to the same destruction wrought more spectacularly by the flames. "Fires destroy mycelium and burns soil, and it takes years and years for those system to rebuild."

"On our farm, we're using organic and regenerative agriculture that focuses on rebuilding soil fertility," Neubauer says. "We try to work in a symbiotic relationship with the planet rather than using fertilizers shipped from Europe that come over on a big ship across the sea and end up in a local grow store. Our goal is to utilize an old method of farming to recreate an old ecosystem."

Neubauer says Oregrown is using nutrients certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), an international industry body based in Eugene, Ore. There is no legal organic certification for the cannabis industry in the Unites States because of its federally prohibited status, but Neubauer says he's confident his operation would pass muster. "We use the local topsoil, amended with organic fertilizers," he says. "We send soil samples off to a lab to determine what needs to be amended—potassium, calcium, nitrogen." 

Neubauer is certainly aware of the massive carbon footprint of indoor cultivation, and thinks that outdoor and greenhouse cultivation is the way of the future.

It's also more economical. Taking variables into consideration, Neubauer estimates the cost to cultivate indoor at up to $600 a pound, as compared to $220 for greenhouse.

But he sees this transition to a green cannabis economy being held back by federal prohibition. "Until interstate commerce is allowed, the significant advantages of climate-controlled greenhouse cultivation won't outshine indoor cultivation. In some ways, indoor cultivation is a holdover from illegality."

There's a sense of regional pride in Neubauer's vision—one increasingly taken up by area growers— for an interstate market in which an ecological model can thrive. "Oregon and Northern California are the Napa Valley of weed," he says. "Just because there's a line there, it doesn't mean anything for the cannabis community."

"It's time we all take responsibility for the land that we cultivate, and be stewards for our lands," he sums up. "That's something we're all going to have to work together on."

Cross-post to Project CBD

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