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Oakland's Grow House Hazards

The city has been blocked from permitting large pot farms, but small, illegal grows are sparking fires and posing threats to public health and safety.



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"Jumping the power box" is when a grower rewires the building around the PG&E meter so that he can use as much power as he wants free of charge. It's dangerous, and illegal. In fact, somebody burned down a house in his neighborhood, John said. "A lot of people are doing that," he said about starting illegal grows. "They only have enough money to plug a few lights in. They have paper walls and no electrician doing an official job."

John says growers during the Great Recession started to come from all walks of life — from former business people to gangbangers and old hippies and their offspring taking over the family business. Many are amateurs trying to get in on a new bubble in the wake of the real estate bust. "It's mostly a money grab," he said. "I'd say a lot of people hit by the recession have tried to jump into this thing. A lot of them have tried and failed."

The rash of new growers also has put pricing and quality pressure on existing ones, including John. Prices are down to roughly $3,000 per pound for top-shelf weed, a far cry from the glory days.

But that's also one of the reasons why John and others believe full legalization — which would crash the price and remove the incentive to home grow — is the only real solution to Oakland's problems. After all, Oakland home brewers aren't burning down their apartments attempting to make easy money off beer and whiskey.

"People are trying to get warehouses, nice houses in the Oakland hills with a basement, sheds in Fruitvale, wherever they can," John said of pot growers. "One guy had a huge place in the El Cerrito hills and had converted the whole thing. Very few are trying to make it a legitimate business. Little gangbangers are trying to turn these houses into grows, they tape up all the windows, fill them with plants and pit bulls, and they blow up."

Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Sheppard isn't normally the first person into a building consumed with fire, but he was on the morning of Saturday, January 29. It was a pot farm in East Oakland.

When responding to a blaze, a firefighter's first priority is rescue. So when he enters what is usually a smoke-spewing, pitch-black room, he has a mental map in his head of how a typical residence or warehouse is laid out. Risk typically increases if the fire is at night. Once a fighter has established that it's a "working fire," and has gotten occupants out, a team works to confine the fire to its area of origin, extinguish it, and perform salvage and overhaul.

But pot farm blazes complicate a firefighter's job immensely. Growers often remove or add walls inside a home, or they wall off and barricade a section of a warehouse. As a result, a firefighter's standard training and mental map become worthless. Not only could the building have dead ends and booby traps, but the grower also probably has altered the electrical system. When the fire department shuts off the power to the house, the power may not actually be off.

"The building is consumed with fire and smoke and there's tons of hazards," Sheppard said. "The greater threat comes from the jerry-rigging of electrical components. You've got batteries. You've got generators, illegal electricity being boosted from other houses and facilities. We think we've turned off the electricity, and when we start deconstructing an area of the building we come across wires that are still electrically charged."

Modifications to the house also can thwart a firefighter's ability to properly ventilate a fire, Sheppard said. Heavily reinforced doors — a hallmark of grows — make it difficult to get inside. Sheppard has seen portions of a home's floor cut out so that the grower can drop a bathtub in place. The bathtub, filled with water, then serves as a hydroponics system with water lines strung throughout the residence — "meaning you've got hot wires and pools of water," Sheppard said.

It turned out that the January 29 fire was caused by an unattended cigarette. In the apartment at 1938 104th Avenue, firefighters also found a loaded gun, which is typical. "Now you've got ammo inside a fire," Sheppard noted. Inside, the grower also had a pit bull with a fresh litter of puppies. Oakland Animal Services ended up euthanizing the pit and the puppies, in part because of smoke inhalation.

When firefighters encounter a grow they call the police. The owner of this particular farm had been in and out of a correctional facility, Sheppard said. But technically, the grower had fewer plants than the city's legal limit. The presence of a gun and the felony jumping of the power might be cause for complaint, but Sheppard didn't know if police had charged him. Police did not respond to a request for information about the incident.

For the fire department, though, it was a relatively minor incident compared with some grows Sheppard has seen in the Oakland hills, where seclusion is an asset. "It's more expensive up there, there's less traffic, mostly people keep to themselves," Sheppard said. Growers in the hills will convert entire two-story homes, adding ventilation and battery units. They'll build boxes around exterior windows to create the illusion of a normal room inside.

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