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Up in smoke: California wildfire torches pot crops

A wildfire burning through dense forest in California's Mendocino County has destroyed more than 11,000 acres and injured eight firefighters. The cost has reportedly topped $20 million.

That does not include the marijuana.

This part of California is known for growing marijuana, most of it illegal, and a lot of it is hidden among the trees.

"I know there have been several marijuana gardens that have burned up," said Sheriff Tom Allman. As residents were being evacuated last week and homes were threatened, Allman attended a community meeting with locals.

"Let's talk about the 'M' word," Allman said he told them, "We are not willing to use this fire to perform marijuana investigations, but we're also not going to put firefighters on the lines to protect it."

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The pot economy here is a double-edged sword. It draws down heavily on resources like water, but it also provides cash to sustain local businesses, schools and government services. Allman made it clear, however, that protecting pot during a fire is not a priority.

"When I say life and property," he said, "marijuana is not in that definition."

An Air National Guard helicopter moves in to make a water drop as the Lodge Fire between Legget and Laytonville jumps the Eel River and moves upslope, Friday Aug. 8, 2014.
Kent Porter | Santa Rosa Press Democrat | AP
An Air National Guard helicopter moves in to make a water drop as the Lodge Fire between Legget and Laytonville jumps the Eel River and moves upslope, Friday Aug. 8, 2014.

Cal Fire Capt. Carlos Guerrero said his crews have been relying on local law enforcement to notify residents to provide access to private roads in order to get to the fire. Some of those roads are blocked by locked gates. "The majority have opened their gates," he said.

Fire crews have not run into any security measures or booby-traps. "I've told Cal Fire to be very loud," when approaching, said the sheriff, who added that booby-traps "are mostly urban legend."

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Perhaps the sheriff's biggest concern about the marijuana going up in smoke isn't whether to protect it, but making sure the 750 inmates fighting the fire don't have access to the pot.

"We've had to take special precautions, extra steps," Allman told CNBC. "But as far as I know, no marijuana has been purposely burned by law enforcement, and none has been stolen by inmates."

—By CNBC's Jane Wells; Follow her on Twitter: @janewells

  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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