Wildfires are endangering parts of California's $2 billion weed industry

More than a dozen wildfires are raging across Northern California, collectively burning through over 100,000 acres and destroying 1,500 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 $US2 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach $US5 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 neighbours escape the fires on Monday.

“We’re expecting some pretty significant property damage,” CGA executive director Hezekiah Allen told the Chronicle. “As damage numbers emerge, it’s going to be pretty stunning on all fronts, and certainly our membership has been directly impacted.”

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.

This year, California has already experienced a dozen more summer wildfires than in 2016, and the season has lasted longer than last year.

The state’s farmers have suffered as a result, including the marijuana industry, which accounted for 27% of North Americas’ 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 flavour.

“Especially when it’s ripe — I can tell you from personal experience, wildfire definitely will make your cannabis have a smoky flavour to it; just like wine,” Kristin Nevedal, executive director of the Humboldt County-based International Cannabis Farmers Association told The Chronicle in September.

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