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‘The whole thing was on fire’: One California cannabis farmer describes losing crop, saving house

October 11, 2017
The main building at Paras Vinyards burns in the Mount Veeder area of Napa in California on October 10, 2017. Firefighters battled wildfires in California's wine region on Tuesday as the death toll rose to 15 and thousands were left homeless in neighborhoods reduced to ashes.
JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images
The main building at Paras Vinyards burns in the Mount Veeder area of Napa in California on October 10, 2017. Firefighters battled wildfires in California's wine region on Tuesday as the death toll rose to 15 and thousands were left homeless in neighborhoods reduced to ashes.
SOURCE: JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

CALIFORNIA’S CANNABIS HARVEST HAS ENDED IN DISASTER AS WILDFIRES SWEEP THROUGH KEY SWATHS OF CANNABIS COUNTRY IN SONOMA AND MENDOCINO COUNTIES. AN UNTOLD NUMBER OF LIVES, HOUSES AS WELL AS HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN CROP LOSSES ARE EXPECTED.

HERE’S ONE STORY OF FIGHTING FOR LIFE AND PROPERTY FROM INSIDE THE NUNS FIRE NEAR NAPA THIS WEEK …


The night could not have been more pregnant with potential.

Throughout Northern California, on thousands of small farms, rows and rows of ripe cannabis buds hung heavy on their branches — aching to be harvested the next morning. After a long, hot, dry summer, California’s biggest cannabis harvest ever promised to net growers billions of dollars in produce — providing the cash to get a legal license, and keep growing in the hot pot economy.

Then, out of the night, a warm wind started to blow down out of the mountains, harder and harder, and Northern California cannabis farmer Erich Pearson started to get nervous.

“We were coming back from dinner in Sonoma at 8:30, 9 and I made a comment to my friend driving under a quarter mile of eucalyptus trees, ‘Drive quick — these things fall.'”

That night, Pearson — founder of the award-winning San Francisco medical cannabis dispensary SPARC, and director of SPARC Farms an hour north of the city— could not sleep. Atop a wooded hill in heavily forested Glen Ellen, California, “I thought the roof was going to blow off; winds like I never seen.”

Further down the hill was Pearson’s massive, organic cannabis farm, which grew biodynamic-certified organic cannabis for medical patients in the city. Ten employees lived and worked the gardens.

“I went to bed thinking — at minimum — the plants were going to be trashed and greenhouse plastic was going to be everywhere,” he said.

"When I woke up Sunday night, Monday morning at 1:30, I looked out the window, it was bright orange. I could see red spots in the bright orange — fires all over the Sonoma Mountains. I woke up my friend, we left the house and we knew the bottom of the hill was on fire. We were concerned the farm was on fire — and the whole thing was on fire.”

“We met the fire department on the farm and showed them where the water tanks were, they held 20,000 gallons. We showed them the holding pond.”

All SPARC staff got out alive by Monday morning, and north Glen Ellen fell under a mandatory evacuation order.

Monday morning light revealed that 60,000 square feet of barns filled with cannabis were gone, along with the SPARC Farms drying room and processing room, and living space for 10 people.

The area was a no-go zone for civilians, but Pearson had for more than a decade defied the federal government and risked prison to run a licensed dispensary in San Francisco, as well as grow much of its stock. On Monday he defied official orders to stay out of the fire zone.

Pearson stayed behind Monday with other neighbors on his road, chain-sawing down trees to make fire breaks around his residence, then fleeing Monday evening when fires got within a quarter mile of his house.

“You can survive if you keep your head on,” he said. “I was cutting lines around the property, cutting trees, but it was just too close for comfort, so I left it.”

“We weren’t behind the fire lines. The house was in the fire. The fire went all around it,” he said.

Again, he defied officials and returned.

“I came back about four hours later to see if [the house] was there, and it was, but there was still a lot of fire around it. We were lucky enough to have a fire truck pass us on the way up and we grabbed the truck.”

Pearson said, “If you put a truck on these houses, you can save them. Five guys with chainsaws can, unless it’s right in the middle of pine forest.”

The East Bay-based fire crew “sat on the house through [Monday] night, sat on it until 6 am [Tuesday]. They said, ‘Go to sleep in your car, and get some rest’, and they took watch and they cut more fire lines around the house. Their captain sits there on the house to make sure it doesn’t burn, and they did.”

Eek....what a mess. These firefighters are pretty badass. This guy named Sweeney in particular. So glad their here.

A post shared by Erich Pearson (@erichpearson) on

Pearson said he’ll never forget the firefighters’ selflessness.

“All they wanted was some [dairy] creamer, so we gave them the rest of the creamer.”
Pearson remained in the mandatory evacuation zone Tuesday and Tuesday night, and today, he said he feels relatively safe.

This house is here. I’m standing at it,” he said. But much of the neighborhood is gone.

He’s no longer on the roof, looking for spot fires. The smoke is clearing a little, and there’s nothing left to burn.

“There’s no fuel left. You see a stump burning and there’s nothing around it, leave it,” he said.

The same dry hot winds blowing out of the northeast are expected to return Wednesday afternoon and evening. So far The Nuns Fire has burned 7,626 acres and is two percent contained.

“We’re safe where we are, but a lot of the community is threatened,” he said. “Sonoma’s got problems.”

@joeyereneta and I rescued koi fish today!

A post shared by Erich Pearson (@erichpearson) on

For updated reports on California’s historic wildfires and their impact on cannabis agriculture, click on Worst year on record’ for cannabis harvests amid widespread California wildfires'.