Pot Farms: Cause of Raging Infernos in Our Forests or Convenient Scapegoat?

The Rim Fire may have been started by an illegal pot farm near Yosemite. Or not.

The Rim Fire burns at night near Yosemite National Park, California, August 30, 2013. (Handout/Reuters)

Sep 3, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is TakePart's News Editor.

Pot may be the reason more than 235,000 acres of California’s pristine forests went up in smoke this summer—or else, that’s a convenient excuse for a failing federal forest policy.

Officials are still investigating the cause of the disastrous Rim Fire that broke out Aug. 17 on the edges of Yosemite National Park, so they’re mum about making any definitive statements, but early evidence seems to point to a weed farm sparking the fire that is burning in an area the size of San Diego.

Investigators know there were no lightning strikes in the tough-to-reach area on the day the fire broke out, Twain Harte Fire Chief Todd McNeil told a community meeting that was posted to YouTube on Aug. 23.

“We know it’s human caused, there was no lightning in the area, but we don’t know the exact cause,” McNeil said. “It’s highly suspected there might be some sort of illicit grove, marijuana grow-type thing but it doesn’t really matter at this point.”

Forest service officials dialed that allegation back a bit Tuesday, with spokesman Derek Ibarguen saying the cause is still under investigation and the pot farm cause is just a rumor.

That rumor tends to get thrown around a lot because it’s easier than tearing apart failing federal logging policy, said Tony Silvaggio, a professor at Humboldt State University. That may be because it creates the sort of common enemy that motivates funding for enforcement and fire mitigation efforts.

Silvaggio is an environmental sociologist who studies the political economy of the forest service, and says if the pot farm was the cause of the fire, it would most likely have been a fire clandestine growers built to keep warm at night.

But that’s a big if.

“It’s really popular right now to blame everything on pot growers because on a sociological perspective it’s one of those things that allows people to gain more resources for their jobs,” said Silvaggio. “Sure, pot growers might have started it, but we have to recognize that these fires that are catastrophic is because of poor forest policy on federal level.”

Without resources to clear underbrush and the amassing of fuels in rugged areas or a policy to just let some lands safely burn in a cycle that serves their ecosystems, the firefight is only going to get more expensive.

Which starts a vicious cycle, because when the firefight gets more expensive, funds that go to programs that prevent forest fires are often sacked.

U.S. Forest spokesman Larry Chambers told the Associated Press on August 23 that the department was running out of money to fight wildfires after spending nearly a billion dollars. Yes, that’s a billion with a B.

The forest service diverted $600 million from timber, recreation and other parts of their budget just to fill the gap—marking the sixth time they’ve had to do that since 2002.

As of Tuesday, there were 25 large, active fires across the country, and 297 such fires have been contained. More than 465,000 acres have been scorched by those blazes, this year alone.

Climatologists don't tend to blame climate change as the sole cause of wildfires, but many say manmade global warming has made conditions ripe for more frequent, larger and longer-burning wildfires.