Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Los Angeles Area Fire Destroys Marijuana Grows in Mountains

Pot goes up in smoke in wildfire above L.A.

By THOMAS WATKINS (AP) – 26 minutes ago

LOS ANGELES — The wildfire that has ravaged a national forest near
Los Angeles has burned one plant species that authorities were happy to
see go: marijuana, lots of it.

The fire destroyed an untold number of marijuana plantations in the
Angeles National Forest, a growing hub for pot-growing operations in

Three marijuana cultivation areas identified just before the fire are
believed to have burned, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lt. Phil Abner
said, and many more are assumed to have been destroyed.

Sheriff's officials don't know how many plants were in the three burned
grow areas. Because marijuana is grown in a hodgepodge style and the
plants are concealed by tall brush, it is hard to gauge from helicopters
the size of each grove. Groves can host anything from several hundred to
several thousand plants.

"I don't doubt that some burned that we hadn't identified," said Abner,
who heads up a multi-agency force tasked each growing season with
eradicating marijuana. "It could be one (growing area), it could be 50."

Cultivation of marijuana, often by Mexican drug cartels, is rife in
California's national forests, and the steep, scrub-covered canyons only
a short drive from Los Angeles are no exception. Even before the blaze,
authorities had removed record amounts of pot with an estimated street
value of more than $2 billion.

In the days the fire was burning most ferociously, several apparent pot
plantation laborers were spotted spilling from the forest and walking
down highways away from the flames, Abner said.

"With no clear explanation as to why they were," he said. "The educated
speculation is they came out of the marijuana groves."

And it appears they are already starting to return to the forest.

On Saturday, a team of hotshot firefighters working near a popular and
badly burned recreational area high in the rugged San Gabriel Mountains
found singed water lines with new ones already lying alongside them.
Fearing for their safety, the firefighters called the sheriff's
department, whose deputies arrested a Mexican national found hiding out
with a .22-caliber rifle, Abner said.

Before the fire, authorities this year had already yanked about 595,000
plants from the national forest and surrounding areas, an amount far
exceeding previous years. With each plant thought to produce about
$4,000 worth of marijuana, Abner estimated the street value of the haul
to be about $2.4 billion.

Across California, more than 4 million plants have been pulled by
authorities this year, almost entirely from public lands, said Michelle
Gregory, a spokeswoman with the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement.

Aside from the obvious dangers associated with having armed drug growers
roaming the countryside, authorities are also concerned about marijuana
plantations' environmental impact.

Barrels of pesticides and herbicides can spill into the groundwater
system, especially after a wildfire, and growers leave trash, gasoline
and other camping equipment lying around while they spend weeks tending
their crop, said Lt. Joe Nunez of the sheriff's narcotics bureau.

They've also been blamed for starting fires.

Marijuana growers with possible ties to Mexican drug cartels caused an
88,650-acre wildfire in Santa Barbara County last month, investigators
said. That blaze was sparked by a cooking device left by suspected drug
traffickers at an encampment.

The current fire is not thought to have been started by marijuana
cultivation, and investigators are looking for an arsonist thought to
have set the blaze next to a mountain highway. Because two firefighters
were killed when their truck crashed down a ravine as they fled flames,
the probe is a homicide investigation.

The fire has charred 250 square miles of national forest and more than
80 homes, but could be fully contained any day.

Abner said the marijuana-growing areas are manned almost invariably by
Mexican immigrants, some of whom have been tricked into tending the
plants. He said some claimed to have been standing outside a Home Depot
in Los Angeles, looking for day labor, when a van pulled up and asked
them if they knew anything about gardening.

"The next thing they know they are up there for five weeks," Abner said,
afraid or unable to come down from the hillside and return to the city.
"They often can't tell you who hired them. ... They just tell you they
have been paid to put water on the weeds."

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