Despite indoor marijuana-growing operations having been the source of numerous local fires in recent years, city efforts to create an ordinance regulating these gardens have died due to the ongoing conflict between state and federal law.
While the state of California allows the use of medicinal marijuana and the cultivation of the plant, the federal government still classifies marijuana as an illegal drug. Because of this, public safety officials have realized that regulating marijuana cultivation is not currently possible.
Petaluma firefighters responded Saturday to a fire at an eastside home that officials say stemmed from faulty electrical wiring to an indoor pot garden. To prevent such fires, which have become more prevalent in recent years, the police and fire departments last year began jointly developing a safety ordinance aimed at regulating indoor medical marijuana growing operations, but ran into conflicts with federal law that prohibits growing marijuana at all.
“The ordinance was put aside because we realized that we cannot have an official fire ordinance that contradicts federal law,” Petaluma Fire Marshal Cary Fergus said. “So we had to stop working on it.”
Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons said last year that the number of indoor marijuana garden-related fires had increased steadily over the past five years. He added this week that the ordinance the department had been developing is completed and sitting on the police chief’s desk, but that due to the federal conflicts, they have been told to shelve it for the time being.
Saturday morning’s 1525 Yarberry Drive fire, reported at 5:48 a.m., was caused by an electrical short circuit in the corner of the garage, officials said. Electrical fires are common at indoor marijuana gardens where electricity is often siphoned illegally to avoid the electrical usage and costs. When the makeshift circuiting fails, it can cause electrical fires that spread easily throughout surrounding structures.
Fergus said Saturday’s fire at the home of Reyes Mendoza displayed the dangers indoor marijuana gardens pose, since firefighters had to wait for PG&E crews to arrive and fully shut off electrical service to the home. This was needed because the short circuit had caused dangerous electrical arcing — during which electricity jumps back and forth between wires and metal surfaces — to occur underground.
Once PG&E had shut off power, fire crews were able to extinguish the blaze. The fire caused approximately $15,000 worth of damage to the home, according to officials. Fergus said that the department will be billing Mendoza for several broken chainsaws and the man-hours used to combat his fire if it is discovered it was the result of an illegal growing operation or electrical theft.
Petaluma Police Lt. Dave Sears said officers will be investigating the possible electric services theft and whether the grow house was an illegal operation. “There is some indication that it may have been a medical grow, but collectives don’t usually steal utilities,” he added.
In May of 2011, a fire related to a suspected marijuana-growing operation destroyed a duplex on Alma Court, while just four days later another indoor pot farm fire caused $80,000 in damage at a Cotati home.
Fergus added that police officers and firefighters must exercise extreme caution when entering an indoor marijuana-growing operation. He said that firefighters can be electrocuted if electrical arcing is occurring from stolen and makeshift electrical panels. “Because we don’t know where the power source is coming from, it is also nearly impossible for firefighters to ensure that power has been shut off completely,” he said.
Firefighters also do not know what they are dealing with when it comes to indoor growing operations that are almost never in compliance with safety standards, said Sears, who is leading the investigation on the Mendoza house fire. “Operations can cause structural hazards from high humidity and excessive mold growth that weakens walls and frames,” he said.
Mayor David Glass said that in light of the recent fire it would be prudent to put some sort of ordinance in place, but acknowledged that it would be up to the fire and police department to find a way to make it legal.
“It probably needs to happen, but if and when is another story,” Glass said.