Marijuana Goes Up in Smoke in Wildfire

Thomas Watkins, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Sept. 19, 2009

The wildfire that has ravaged a national forest near Los Angeles has burned one plant species that authorities were happy to see go: marijuana, lots of it.

The fire destroyed an untold number of marijuana plantations in the Angeles National Forest, a growing hub for pot-growing operations in California.

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Cultivation of marijuana, often by Mexican drug cartels, is rife in California’s national forests, and the steep, scrub-covered canyons only a short drive from Los Angeles are no exception.

In the days the fire was burning most ferociously, several apparent pot plantation laborers were spotted spilling from the forest and walking down highways away from the flames, Abner said.

And it appears they are already starting to return to the forest.

On Saturday, a team of firefighters working near a popular and badly burned recreational area high in the rugged San Gabriel Mountains found singed water lines with new ones already lying alongside them. Fearing for their safety, the firefighters called the sheriff’s office, whose deputies arrested a Mexican national found hiding out with a .22-caliber rifle, Abner said.

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They’ve also been blamed for starting fires.

Marijuana growers with possible ties to Mexican drug cartels caused an 88,650-acre wildfire in Santa Barbara County last month, investigators said. That blaze was sparked by a cooking device left by suspected drug traffickers at an encampment.

The current fire is not thought to have been started by marijuana cultivation, and investigators are looking for an arsonist thought to have set the blaze next to a mountain highway. {snip}

Abner said the marijuana growing areas are manned almost invariably by Mexican aliens, some of whom have been tricked into tending the plants. He said some claimed to have been standing outside a Home Depot in Los Angeles, looking for day labor, when a van pulled up and asked them if they knew anything about gardening.

“The next thing they know they are up there for five weeks,” Abner said, afraid or unable to come down from the hillside and return to the city. “They often can’t tell you who hired them. . . . They just tell you they have been paid to put water on the weeds.”

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