The California wildfires are not just ravaging wine country. The state's marijuana farms are under threat, too.
More than a dozen wildfires are raging across Northern California, collectively burning through over 100,000 acres and destroying at least 3,500 homes, businesses, and other structures. The situation is already one of the worst firestorms in California history.
The fires not only threaten the state's famous wine grapes in Napa and Sonoma — but also its marijuana crops.
California produces over half of the marijuana consumed in the US. The state's legal cannabis sales totaled approximately $2 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach $5 billion in coming years, according to an analysis by University of California-Davis researchers.
According to the 2016 Sonoma County Crop Report, between 3,000 and 9,000 medical cannabis farmers work in Sonoma County — where the fires hit hard and more than 150 people are missing. Sonoma County revenues from marijuana are unknown but likely total in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.
The Chronicle also notes that one-third of the California Growers Association (CGA), a marijuana farmers association, leaders evacuated or helped neighbors escape the fires on Monday.
Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the CGA, later confirmed to The Chronicle that the fires in Sonoma and Mendocino counties have caused "the worst year on record for California’s growers." Several dozen CGA members in the area lost their entire farms and homes.
"I had one conversation today where the family was in tears, saying, 'We don’t know how we're going to make it to January, let alone next planting season,'" Allen told The Chronicle.
Compared to wineries, it can be harder for marijuana farmers to obtain crop or fire insurance, said Tawnie Logan, chair of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance. A wildfire turned one $2 million cannabis crop in a Santa Rosa greenhouse into ash, she added.
It's too soon to tell whether California's 2017 wildfire season will be worse than in 2015, when over 8 million acres of total land burned. Although the number of fires in California has decreased in the past decade, more land has been charred due to vulnerability from the ongoing drought.
The state's farmers have suffered as a result — including the marijuana industry, which accounted for 27% of North America's legal cannabis sales in 2016, according to SF Weekly. In 2015, The International Business Times reported that wildfires incinerated hundreds of California pot farms, with financial losses in the millions. Researchers estimate that four of out five pounds of California-grown cannabis, which is usually harvested in the fall, is shipped out of state.
Wildfires that burn close to marijuana fields are known for giving the crop a smokey flavor.
"Especially when it’s ripe — I can tell you from personal experience, wildfire definitely will make your cannabis have a smoky flavor to it; just like wine," Kristin Nevedal, executive director of the Humboldt County-based International Cannabis Farmers Association told The Chronicle in September.