Fire District Officials Announce New Training for Fighting Fires at Marijuana Grow Houses

Contra Costa fire officials are also encouraging residents to report homes showing signs of marijuana growing operation.

Photo Credit: Morguefile
Photo Credit: Morguefile
By Bay City News Service—

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.
On Jan. 24, Contra Costa fire crews found many of the typical red flags while fighting a two-alarm blaze at a home on Tampico Drive in Pittsburg that housed a major marijuana growing operation, the investigator said. The house was completely destroyed, and firefighters had to battle the blaze from outside after the home's roof collapsed -- an all-too-common occurrence in marijuana grow fires, Massenkoff said. That fire "was the straw that broke the camel's back," the fire investigator said.
While no fire personnel were injured in the blaze, he said, "the hazards to firefighters became very evident in this fire...we realized it was time to provide new direction to firefighters on how to deal with fires at these types of properties."

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. 

Copyright © 2014 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.
Jojo Potato February 21, 2014 at 10:54 AM
More propaganda as the fire district gears up for their parcel tax increase. Just vote NO.
Chris Kapsalis February 21, 2014 at 11:26 AM
I vote yes on that one. My issue was with the school district getting parcel taxes for new science equipment. Fire stations are critical for our safety, yet that measure failed.. and we lost I think 7 fire houses? One a few blocks from our home. But, we got new science equipment. @@ BTW legalize this stuff already and take the profit out of it, and you will see less, or none, of these large scale home grow operations. Which also should not be in residential areas, but industrial areas. Who in the hell would do all this work if anyone could grow this stuff in their yard and it was basically worthless? Or taxed and regulated like alcohol in CA? You do not see much large scale distilleries in back yards do you. I still have no clue what we are thinking, we create problems keeping it illegal. Didn't prohibition teach us anything? However, wouldn't they treat any fire as if there may be a coupel 5 gallon propane cans in the garage? They do have natural gas lines and chemicals, other possible dangers in any fire. Not sure why this would be so different. As far as potential danger to fire fighters when a home catches fire. Fire fighters risk their lives anytime a home is on fire, with the ever present danger of countless things that can blow up in a burning home, from ammo to gas cans to large cans of oxygen you name it. It is dangerous work ..
Bob Brittain February 21, 2014 at 07:24 PM
Please correct the spelling in the headline of this article. Hint: District
Bob Strong February 21, 2014 at 08:55 PM
Teaching local firefighters how to safely distinguish these fires should be chief concern for this community. Residential electrical services often go to extensive measures to prevent such circumstances. I hope that with the proper training we can help prevent these future dangers. http://electriciankc.com/residential/
Chris F. February 24, 2014 at 07:02 PM
I am confused by the article? Fire department says grow marijuana let it burn and if anyone is inside they to shall go down with the house? What is a "grow operation"? isn't growing of marijuana with a medical license legal? Just doing the math it would take 1000 plants that have 1lb per of sellable pot per plant to equal the amount of profit that the fire department says these house operations are profiting in todays market. They also say if there is an unusual amount of traffic in and out of the home call the police> I would think that anyone that is growing a thousand plants isn't inviting everyone in the town that is looking to score pot into their wall to wall pot farm? Lastly they say that PG&E should come and turn the power off before the fire dept. enters but they also say that these operations are bypassing the meters which means they have to shut off the power to the neighborhood first. Shouldn't the fire department have a map and access to a breaker for neighborhood shutdown? This is sounding like a bad policy for the fire dept. I am willing to bet before to long they will let the "wrong house" burn and they will be responsible? PS recently there have been many people coming in and out of my neighbors house carrying these boxes. They are carrying cash to the door and this little girl hands them a box. It happens every year around this time. Should I call the police?


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