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.