Wildfires taint untold tons of California cannabis

Flames surround a marijuana plant as a wildfire burns near Oroville, Calif., on Saturday, July 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Noah Berger) SOURCE: Noah Berger
Flames surround a marijuana plant as a wildfire burns near Oroville, Calif., on Saturday, July 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Noah Berger) SOURCE: Noah Berger

America’s cannabis consumers need to be on the lookout for cheap, campfire-smelling bud this harvest season, after another record year of wildfires likely tainted untold thousands of pounds of pot with smoke and ash.

“Campfire pot”, “beef jerky”, and “hickory kush” are some of the nicknames farmers living in wildfire country give to smoke-tainted buds. Those buds are being harvested this month in the wildfire-ravaged Western U.S. and are often shipped east to unregulated black markets in New York, Atlanta and Chicago.

California is America’s number one domestic producer of cannabis — growing an estimated 13 million pounds per year. Four out of five of those pounds of pot grown in-state is shipped out of state, researchers estimate. Much of that pot is grown outdoors, and is planted in the Spring and harvested in the fall.

The timing of wildfire season could not be worse for cannabis, because the delicate, fragrant flower buds begin to bloom right at the peak of fire season, said Kristin Nevedal, executive director of the International Cannabis Farmers Association, based in the Humboldt County town of Garberville, CA.

“Especially when it’s ripe — I can tell you from personal experience, wildfire definitely will make your cannabis have a smokey flavor to it; just like wine,” said Nevedal.

The 2017 U.S. wildfire season is the third worst this decade, surpassed only by 2015 and 2012, according to National Interagency Fire Center tallies. A total of 3,692 Northern California fires have burned 411,742 acres in 2017.

Northern California’s fire-prone ‘Emerald Triangle’ harbors the world’s largest concentration of cannabis farms in the remote forested mountainsides of Trinity, Humboldt, and Mendocino counties. Lightning fires in 2015 were more extensive than this year’s round of wildfires in Mendocino and Humboldt. But in Trinity County — about a nine-hour drive from San Francisco — this year’s Helena-Fork Fire continues to blaze through the Trinity Alps Wilderness, torching over 20,000 acres and destroying 72 homes.

Up at the Oregon border, more than 78,000 acres have burned in cannabis-rich Siskiyou County as part of the Eclipse Complex fire.

And Oregon’s epicenter of outdoor cannabis production in Jackson and Josephine Counties has felt the smoldering impacts of the Miller Complex, a slow-moving wildfire that’s burned over 37,000 acres.

Farmers say smoke’s impacts on pot crops are influenced by wind direction, rain, how old the plants are and how much they were exposed to smoke and/or ash. “I think it’s really hit or miss,” said Nevedal.

Beyond the campfire smell, smoke-exposed crops are more susceptible to disease, leading to unhealthy levels of mold, mildew and fungus that may put one at risk of developing cardiovascular disease or lung infection.

Nevedal said farmers won’t really understand the extent of smoke damage until further near the end of the Harvest season — which runs through the end of October.

“When we had forest fires in Salmon Creek — you really didn’t notice it so much until once you’re out of that environment. When you’re working and living with really poor air quality you can’t tell if the cannabis smells like smoke, or the air, or your clothes or all of it. It’s really after it’s cured and you start opening these bags back up that you’ll notice,” she said.

That is the case near the Helena Fire in the Trinity Alps Wilderness, 260 miles north of San Francisco. On August 30, the wildfire blazed through a cluster of cannabis farms that included Canyon Creek Collective, Quantum Organics, and Terry’s Weed.

Allie Seeger of Canyon Creek Collective described 30 nerve-wracking hours when she thought their whole property was gone. “It was a wall of fire circling our gardens when we evacuated,” she said.


Seeger is worried about the early-finishing plants on her farm and is waiting on test results to determine whether to go through the expense of having the raw, dried cannabis plants cleaned up for the market.

If her bud fails quality testing, the pot will instead be used to make concentrated cannabis oil, called ‘distillate’ — a popular golden-colored oil comprised of over 90% pure THC, the main active ingredient in weed.

Using steam distillation to strip out the smoke flavor and other contaminants from smoke-tainted pot can be a safe way to salvage a crop said, Jeffrey C. Raber, CEO of The Werc Shop.

Extraction might be a lifesaver for many wildfire-exposed farms, said Kevin Jodrey, proprietor of Ganjier Farms and Wonderland Nursery in Southern Humboldt County.

“It’s the only way we’re going to be able to work with some of these new environmental situations, because I don’t think the fires are going to stop,” Jodrey said. “It’s our new reality.”

While the smoky flavor of wildfire is easy to detect on cannabis flowers, consumers should know that marijuana-infused edibles can be more easily masked. For example, “barbeque” flavored snacks.

“Watch out for those infused hickory bbq chips,” warned Sacramento-area cannabis farmer Dylan Bertram.

David Downs also contributed to this report.