The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

February 21, 2014

Calif. firefighters wary of danger with rise in pot grow house fires

PITTSBURG, Calif. — With its manicured lawn and stucco facade, the two-story home on Tampico Drive blended in with the rest of the new housing development on the west side of town. Neighbors say adults and even a young child came and went.

So when flames shot from the roof on Jan. 25, devouring the entire second story, residents were amazed by what authorities found inside: a sophisticated operation where thousands of marijuana plants sprouted throughout every bedroom of the suburban home.

“It looked normal,” said Armin Sohrabi, who lives across the street in a neighborhood not yet one year old. “You assume they’re a family. That’s all we thought. I guess people should be more attentive.”

While illegal residential pot farms are not new in California, there is no federal fire standard listing them as a specific cause of a fire, so state and national data is limited. But such tracking has begun locally, and officials say the data suggests it is a growing epidemic, a fire danger lurking behind the front doors of ordinary-looking homes in every corner of Contra Costa County.

Less than two weeks before the Tampico Drive fire, Antioch police seized nearly 1,000 plants from a home on Hidden Glen Drive after a single-alarm fire broke out on Jan. 15. Similar blazes have been reported in San Pablo, Hercules and Oakley within the Contra Costa Fire Protection District, which covers 304 square miles in the eastern, central and western parts of the county.

The department has also seen fires started by people using butane to turn marijuana into hash oil, a process that can result in explosions when lingering butane finds an ignition source. Last year, an Oakley man lit a cigarette while making hash oil, causing an explosion that severely burned 90 percent of his body, authorities said. In a district averaging 200 home fires a year, 20 fires were caused by illegal pot growing in 2013, up from 10 the previous year, according to Fire Prevention Capt. Robert Marshall.

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