94 per cent of California’s cannabis farms are at risk from wildfire

Cannabis farms faced more wildfire risk than any other crop in the state

Ethan Freedman
Climate Reporter, New York
Tuesday 13 September 2022 02:32 BST
Over 11,000 people evacuated as Mosquito Fire explodes in size

Wildfires are a growing threat to nearly all Californians, with tens of thousands of acres regularly burning every summer across the state and sending smoke hundreds of miles away.

But a new study from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley finds that the cannabis industry may have some of the most at risk when it comes to wildfires, with 94 per cent of the state’s farms located in fire hotspots.

The study points to a growing problem as the newly legal cannabis industry meets the reality of a hotter, more fire-prone world under climate crisis.

"Our findings affirm that cannabis agriculture is geographically more threatened by wildfire than any other agricultural crop in California,” Christopher Dillis, an environmental researcher at UC Berkeley and lead author on the study, told the university.

The study compared wildfire risk for cannabis in California to other crops. Results were published last week in the journal Ecosphere.

Overall, they found that cannabis farms were more likely to be found in “high” or “very high” fire hazard severity zones than any other crop they looked at. In addition, cannabis farms were generally closer to places where wildfires had erupted in the five decades.

More than 25 per cent of cannabis-growing areas were also in areas that, under the climate crisis, will be either new or intensifying wildfire hotspots over the next 80 years.

Other crops in California also faced wildfire threats, notably grapes. Wildfires have been a growing problem for vintages in the state, who now face potential contamination of the smoke contamination in their wines.

A lot of this risk comes down to geography, the study points out — cannabis is often grown along the northern and central coasts, which are in areas that can be more fire-prone. Much of California’s other agriculture is grown in the Central Valley, which has a much lower fire risk. But many counties in that area have prohibited cannabis cultivation, even after state legalization, the study notes.

These wildfires could have a major impact on the cannabis industry in the coming years. California is one of a handful of states to have fully legalized cannabis for recreational and medicinal use, making it a hotspot for cannabis farming.

In addition, California itself is responsible for a full quarter of all legal cannabis sales in the US, the study notes.

Cannabis agriculture has become a vital part of the state’s economy as well. The study estimates that if 25 per cent of cannabis production in California were lost, it would have a larger economic impact than losing the entire orange crop.

And for farmers in the cannabis industry, there may also be more financial risk at stake than farmers of other crops, since cannabis is still illegal at the federal level and insurance plans for crop damage are rarer.

The climate crisis is liable to bring much more drought and extreme heat to the US west — which can create the perfect conditions for wildfires to spark and spread. And more than just cannabis is at risk.

A recent report found that 800,000 properties in the western US had at least a 26 per cent chance of burning over the next 30 years.

Multiple fires are burning in California and other western states this week, including the Cedar Creek Fire in Oregon, which exploded in size over the weekend and now covers an area the size of Philadelphia.

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