ConFIRE Using New Strategies to Fight Dangerous Pot Grow House Fires

February 21, 2014 16:54 pm · 24 comments

As the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District responds to a growing number of fires at marijuana grow houses, the district is turning to new strategies to keep firefighters and community members safe from the unique dangers posed by these fires.

Firefighters risk their lives on a regular basis, Contra Costa Fire Protection District investigator Vic Massenkoff said, but a blaze at a large-scale pot growing operation pose some of the greatest hazards for fire personnel.

District officials this week announced new training procedures for fighting fires at major residential marijuana grows.

Firefighters are being educated on how to spot the signs of a grow operation and to fight blazes at grow houses defensively, or outside of the home, rather than heading inside, where the risks to firefighters are often too great.

The fire district is also instructing firefighters to wait until PG&E personnel have turned off power at the house before going inside.

“There’s no material possession that’s worth the life of our firefighters,” Contra Costa fire Capt. Robert Marshall said.

The emphasis during these firefights is also on preventing the blaze from spreading to neighboring homes, fire officials said.

Over the past few years, the fire district has battled about 35 fires at large pot grow operations, fire officials said.

Large-scale grows are popping up in communities throughout the Bay Area and statewide, in addition to the nine cities and unincorporated areas of Contra Costa County covered by the fire district.

“It’s an epidemic as far as how many homes are being converted to full marijuana growing operations,” Massenkoff said.

The problem is so big that a 2011 study by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientist Evan Mills found that some 8 percent of California’s energy is consumed by indoor growing operations.

PG&E can usually spot customers housing a large marijuana grow when the electricity meter shows commercial-level electricity usage, used to power the grow lights, ventilation and humidity systems used to cultivate marijuana, Massenkoff said.

To avoid detection, large-scale growers typically re-wire a home’s electrical system so that it bypasses the utility meter, fire officials said.

But the rigged electrical systems often fail, sparking fires that can travel quickly through a home’s walls and a phenomenon known as arcing, in which electricity travels back and forth between electrical wires and metal surfaces. This makes firefighters responding to a fire at a grow house much more vulnerable to electrocution.

Other hazards usually found at major pot growing operations include barred windows and doors and extra walls built to mask the operation, Massenkoff said.

Massenkoff said large-scale marijuana grows are usually uncovered when a fire breaks out, but sometimes law enforcement agencies find out about them from suspicious neighbors.

Contra Costa fire officials are encouraging more residents to come forward when they spot the signs of a growing operation in their neighborhood.

Fire officials say red flags include barred windows in neighborhoods where no other homes’ windows have bars and windows that are shaded at all hours of the day. Residents should also be wary of new residents who are never seen moving personal items into their home and have frequent visitors coming and going, district officials said.

Massenkoff said fire officials are also hoping more criminals are prosecuted when a fire breaks out due to a large-scale marijuana growing operation.

Several suspects linked to grow house fires in Contra Costa County in recent years have been charged with recklessly causing a fire, he noted.

However, in many cases, large-scale marijuana growers whose grow houses burn down are able to use their massive profits to quickly purchase or rent a new grow house, Massenkoff said.

Yearly profits from an average grow house in Contra Costa County total at least $1.5 million, he said.

Scoob February 21, 2014 at 5:29 PM

This is why cities should not force growers indoors by outlawing outdoor grows. Pot is meant to be grown out in the sun like all other plants.

Schmee February 21, 2014 at 6:08 PM

What #1 said.

KJ February 21, 2014 at 6:09 PM

“…In Colorado, where recreational sales began on Jan. 1 with hour long waits, a budget proposal from Gov. John W. Hickenlooper estimated that the state’s marijuana industry could reach $1 billion in sales in the next fiscal year, with recreational sales making up about $610 million of that business…”

I have never heard of marijuana growers getting sick from working with marijuana plants, but here was a very interesting article about farm workers getting poisoned from working with tobacco plants.

Atticus Thraxx February 21, 2014 at 6:10 PM

“Contra Costa fire officials are encouraging more residents to come forward when they spot the signs of a growing operation in their neighborhood.

I was completely on board until they asked neighbor to turn on neighbor.
Post-workout, pre-dinner might be a bad time to post, cause I was onboard until I read that sentence.

Anonymous February 21, 2014 at 6:19 PM

Atticus, its more like neighbor turning on dope dealer.Dont thInk those fires are always confined to one house.

Rebel February 21, 2014 at 6:26 PM

And yet the City of Concord still believes that preventing outdoor weed cultivation is the solution. Now there is an influx of house fires due to indoor weed cultivation. They should just let people grow outdoors! It saves electricity and firefighters lives!

Concord Grape February 21, 2014 at 6:27 PM

Controlled burn,then if proven to be a grow house the insurance should add a clause to the effect that the claim can be denied.

Shuley February 21, 2014 at 6:37 PM

Reiterate what #1 said. Some of the blame goes to the city council for banning outdoor grows. Also CC county could legalize medical marijuana so that grows are registered and the city knows where they are.

Mr. Moses February 21, 2014 at 6:41 PM

The fact that a government official is calling it an “epidemic” and that a whopping, freakin whopping, 8% of the entire electrical output of the world’s 8th largest economy is feeding this beast clearly means that the laws are behind the times and the will of the people. The last time that much energy was pulled from the grid they cloaked the Earth in a Stargate episode.

Clearly, It is time to legalize. Do it for our poor firefighters . You owe them at least that much…

Dorothy February 21, 2014 at 7:00 PM

Okay with firemen staying outside and protecting the neighbors. Just wonder if the firemen will get sued for not going inside or for waiting for PG&E to turn off power.

Nik February 21, 2014 at 7:34 PM

Should’ve been considered before they banned natural outdoor growth. Ridiculous law leads to ridiculous risk…go figure.

Concord Mike February 21, 2014 at 7:35 PM

The Concord City Council did the right thing when it outlawed outdoor grows.

Marijuana is a stinky plant. Smells like skunk. It is repulsive to most neighbors but attractive to criminals.

Criminals who bypass PG&E in order to steal power and endanger themselves and others should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Steve Harris February 21, 2014 at 7:39 PM

I do not use marijuana, but I am wholly for legalization. I also think with the legalization, grow construction could be inspected and codes developed to have a safe operation. Solar operation where possible..etc. I have a feeling all the variables that go into this operation(mechanical, plumbing, electrical and fire safety) are above the average skill set for an average joe to build safely.

Annon February 21, 2014 at 7:41 PM

The police and fire dept should have a list of the houses growing medical marijuana, they were suppose to go through neighborhood services for permits and permits needed to fix grow areas. We need stricter guidelines on the whole marijuana situation…..the police know where the grow houses are located.

Well.. February 21, 2014 at 7:59 PM

No need to put ff’s in danger. Once it is established as a grow house, they need to step out and protect the neighbors houses. Let the grow house burn down.

A February 21, 2014 at 8:17 PM

That’s what happens when you make people grow indoors, what’s worst house fires or the smell of pot growing outside?????

DREED February 21, 2014 at 8:24 PM

I had a grow house right next door to my house in Concord 2 years ago. There was always somebody new coming over to take care of the plants and you could smell it frequently. I made several complaints and gave the police license plate numbers. We were worried about our safety, and I didn’t even think about the possibility of a fire spreading to our house and injuring my family. The police did absolutely nothing. They finally moved out after the house was robbed. Clearly this was not a big issue for anybody aside from a few concerned neighbors.

Ven Xeter February 21, 2014 at 8:47 PM

Stories like this always bring out the brain dead “Legalize” crowd. Criminals are criminals. If you legalize pot, pot dealers will not become productive members of society, rather they will move on to the next black market activity where they can make a buck. Will our communities be safer when the indoor pot grows turn into meth labs?

Craig Cannon February 21, 2014 at 9:20 PM

Many Homes Used to Grow Weed, are Rented From Legitimate Folks, just Renting a Home as an Investment or Second Income. Should They Loose a Their Investment because Crooks are Growing Drugs, Stealing Electricty, From PG&E which we Eventually Pay For with Higher Bills? Of Course Not. Pot Works For Those Who Use it As a Medicine, Agreed. I’d only like to see The Dispensaries Buy from Legitimate Growers, not These Rats that Steal Power, Ruin Rental Homes, and Threaten Firefighters Safety. If Pot Helps You, More Power To You, let’s get Something In The Law That Satisfies The Patients, without Terrorizing The Innocent Homeowners, with Loss of Thier Investment Home. After a Grow is Discovered, a Home is Basicly Destroyed. Fire or Not. We Will Find The Answer to Both Sides Eventually.

Mr. Moses February 21, 2014 at 9:21 PM

@Ven Xeter
Wow dude you have a lot of gall to call people “brain dead” when you commit one logical fallacy after another. What the steroids? Coke? Anyway, in one very concise paragraph (good job, seriously) you managed to commit all these fallacies: ad hominem, straw man, false cause, slippery slope, black or white, begging the question, and anecdotal. You probably have made a bunch more, but its been a while since I’ve read a logic book. I would have to look this stuff up since you went so deep with it. You are like a logical fallacy genius! Kudos bro.

Huh? February 21, 2014 at 10:24 PM

@ Mr. Moses–20

What the hell are you talking about? You’re not dealing with a full deck.

Chronic Halitosis February 22, 2014 at 8:11 AM

CCC Fire got Federal monies and the FEDs want to breed mistrust between neighbors. Raise the property fence line to 7′. No permits required . Why should we pay you money. If you don’t make 250k per year you should not be paying taxes. The reason this is being done is too deter the crime you can’t fight because you pay out excessive pensions to old crooked cops. Why don’t you arrest the cops that killed that disabled vet in his veterans hospital bed by fudging the reports about dementia status and Placement appropriateness? . This case reels in 20 dirty lawyers, 8 dirty cops, 2 court clerks. The chairs and co chairs of the ccc bar (all of them). NO ONE IS ALLOWED TO MURDER A DISABLED VET FOR HIS FAMILY MONEY AND TORMENT THE VETS FAMILY FOR 20 YEARS ESPECIALLY CROOKED COPS

@Van Xeter February 22, 2014 at 8:27 AM

Many professional people 50+ smoke marijuana these days. Our kids are grown, and we have gotten to a place where we don’t want to feel like criminals for making the choice to smoke a joint vs legally downing martinis.

I do think there’s a place for medical marijuana, but mostly it’s just a way for people with minor aches and pains to smoke legally. If professionals don’t have to meet some street dealer, then going to a dispensary is a better option. The tide is turning and more people feel that legalization is not going to be the demise of our country.

If those criminals move on to the next criminal activity, then that’s on them. I’m all for letting the productive, over 21 part of society make their own decisions about how they want to relax without the criminal implications.

Mimi (original) February 24, 2014 at 1:30 PM

So, let’s allow growers back into their yards to grow their plants – plants deserve natural sunlight, wind and rain!

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