Grow Houses Pose New Threats to Calif. Firefighters

April 16, 2012
Two recent fires have prompted the Vallejo Fire Department to assess what could be a new threat for firefighters and the city.

The call comes in -- a Vallejo home is on fire. Firefighters rush to the scene, observe blacked-out windows and smoke pouring from the chimney. Inside, utter darkness, perhaps a bag of fertilizer by the door.

Two recent residential fires that turned out to be rented homes converted into marijuana-growing facilities have prompted the Vallejo Fire Department to assess what could be a new threat for firefighters and the city, department Battalion Chief Dave Urrutia said.

Urrutia responded to one of the recent grow-house fires and also spent time in a converted grow house outside Vallejo after a police bust. As a result, he said he has begun establishing new training standards for the department.

"It's really a bad deal, with the grow houses, nationwide, for the fire departments," Urrutia said. "Usually, when something new like that comes out, where it's new to us, at that level, once we have two in a row like that ... I put something out already on training.

"I'm not sure if we're going to come out with a standard operating guide or a policy (also). (We're) definitely doing training already," Urrutia said. "I sent out stuff on training. Training as a minimal."

Often, the grow locations are air- and light-sealed - meaning firefighters cannot see inside, and the fire's smoke stays trapped inside. Also, the facilities often have extra walls and partitions built and the floors are covered in plants and equipment, Urrutia said

"The second I open the door and see fertilizer, I said this is probably a grow. Then you break windows to ventilate, then you can see," Urrutia said. "Now all of a sudden you see all of the duct work and you see the plants and all that stuff in there. Right then, it's like 'Hey, (let's) back out, let's reevaluate and see what we want to do. With all the hazards that it has or could potentially have - like booby traps."

The federal Drug Enforcement Agency has also issued warnings about the potential dangers when dealing with indoor marijuana growing facilities - whether they are on fire or not. A 2009 National Drug Intelligence Center Hawaii-focused drug market analysis spotlighted grow houses' ideal toxic mold growth culturing conditions that taints indoor air quality.

"Buildings used for indoor grow sites are fire hazards due to the presence of the chemical fertilizers, high-intensity lighting, electrical equipment, and reconfigured electrical systems," the according to the study. "High levels of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide may also be present at indoor grow sites as a result of damaged exhaust systems."

Electrical dangers

Beyond the hazards Urrutia listed are those of these facilities' power supplies.

In the past several months, Vallejo Chief Building Official Gary West said he has seen a spike in his interactions with medical marijuana dispensaries and grow facilities. And at almost every location, West said he is seeing the same red flags.

"Any time you deal with a lot of electricity and some high-intensity heat lights, there's always a potential for fire," West said in a recent interview. "(At the grow houses), they're altering the electrical system, and most of the ones that I've seen myself have had, they've tapped into the high-voltage electrical system on PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) side, so they've bypassed the meter."

By tapping into the electricity source "upstream" of the meter, as West referred to it, growers neither have to pay potentially massive electricity bills, nor set off any red flags for sudden spikes in their energy use, he said.

But that kind effort is not without its fallout, West and fire investigator Gregory White agreed.

"It's live, it's continually live. It's 240 volts," West said. "I'm surprised that there haven't been a lot of accidents, or people getting killed, because they're tapping into a live feed."

Grow house fires

Electrical current that cannot be shut off in a routine manner means added danger for emergency responders trying to prevent a fire from spreading, officials said.

At least one of the two recent fires has been linked to the marijuana-growing operation inside, according to Vallejo Fire Department investigations.

Information on the cause of a fire on March 31, at 408 Evelyn Circle, has not yet been released. But an earlier fire, on the 100 block of Windsor Court on March 23, showed a "preponderance of evidence" of a marijuana grow inside, said White.

However, since the entire second floor of the home was consumed by fire, leaving the structure somewhat structurally unsound, White said he was unable to make a definitive ruling.

"This is a recent phenomenon that we're encountering," White said of the grow-house fires. "This is something that the fire service as a whole is having to face in California, since there is a conflict with (state and federal law)."

Another fire at a facility converted into a marijuana grow occurred on Jan. 3 on the 1500 block of Sonoma Boulevard. Illegal electrical connections and overloaded circuitry were also noted by officials at the time.

Criminal element

While neither fire has been linked to any Vallejo medical marijuana dispensaries, Vallejo Police Department spokesman Jeff Bassett said in a recent interview that the combination of the city's empty and foreclosed property with the proliferation of dispensary retail shops may have acted as a green light to would-be growers.

State law allows approved medical marijuana users or their primary caregivers to possess six mature or 12 immature marijuana plants per qualified patient, or more if the patient has a doctor's recommendation that the quantity is insufficient. To meet the state definition of "primary caregiver", that person cannot simply be the marijuana supplier, but rather must be someone "who has consistently assumed responsibility for the housing, health, or safety of that patient or person."

It is unclear if the operators of the two grow facilities had obtained the appropriate approvals.

The Vallejo Police Department at one time proactively sought out and disbanded illegal grow houses, but has been unable to devote as many resources to the issue of late, Sgt. Jeff Bassett said. Lt. Ken Weaver, head of the department's crime suppression unit, agreed, saying the city has not had a dedicated narcotics unit since 2003.

"If we're given the information, if someone reports it, we definitely go after it," Weaver added. "(But) it's an off-the-radar type of thing (now)."

Weaver said his unit took what evidence it could from the recent fire scenes and has sent out the information for fingerprint analysis. However, typically these grow houses are renters who pay cash and disappear, he said.

Following the passage of California's lenient medical marijuana legislation in recent years, proactive marijuana enforcement is "complicated," Bassett said.

Copyright 2012 The Times-Herald. All Rights Reserved

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