Webs of electrical wire snaking up bedroom walls power indoor marijuana gardens throughout Sonoma County. They also are sparking a rising number of fires.
Nearly one in 10 structure fires this year has been linked to the lights, fans, generators and other systems used to grow pot, several fire agencies say.
So prevalent is the problem that the Santa Rosa Fire Department plans to start billing property owners for fires linked to the negligence often found with indoor marijuana growing.
"It's really created a high number of building fires for us," Battalion Chief Jack Piccinini said. "It's not just residences. The last one was in a small warehouse."
In Santa Rosa, nine of the 90 structure fires so far this year were linked to pot. At least three of 43 structure fires in the Rincon Valley fire district and two of 32 in Windsor this year were related to indoor pot production, according to the Central Fire Authority, which serves the two fire districts.
"Every jurisdiction you talk to is seeing an increase in fires due to grow houses," said Petaluma Fire Marshal Cary Fergus, who also is president of the Sonoma County Fire Prevention Officers Association.
create brochures warning of
them to dispensaries, hydroponics shops and "places where we're going to hit our target audience: People who are either legally or illegally growing in their homes," said Cyndi Foreman, fire prevention officer with Central Fire.
Petaluma Police Chief Dan Fish alerted his
City Council to the growing danger.
"We're starting to see it more often and we think it's time to address it," he said
The causes of the fires are predictable. A generator overheats or malfunctions. The electrical circuitry system becomes overloaded with the added power used to light and warm the plants.
In almost all cases, the electrical wiring did not meet legal requirements.
"They're a threat to firefighters responding to them and a real problem in neighborhoods," Fergus said.
Fergus estimated Petaluma firefighters have seen at least five such fires in the p
ast few years.
He cited a fire in May on Alma Court near the Payran Street neighborhood. The overloaded wiring for an indoor garden in a duplex sparked a fire, destroying the interior of the residence and causing smoke damage to the adjoining residence.
It was a two-alarm response, he said, because of the proximity to other homes, and that brought a large firefighting response. A firefighter fell through the ceiling and suffered a second-degree hand burn when his glove came off.
Authorities say many fires involve tenants who quickly disappear, leaving landlords to deal with the damage.
These property owners are either unaware or choose to not ask questions when a tenant pays the deposit and each month's rent with cash, said Charles Jensen, an attorney who represents landlords in eviction cases throughout Sonoma County.
"We usually see the following scenario: Someone young, usually male, they've got a flashy car — a Mustang convertible with flashy good-looking expensive wheels," Jensen said. "Everything is cash."
Among his clients, he said, pot gardens at rental properties have grown "threefold in the past five years."
He said his clients experienced two fires in the past 12 months, including one in a home off Sebastopol Road in Roseland where male renters rewired the electrical system to bypass the circuit breakers.
"The whole thing went up," Jensen said. "The neighbors were hitting it with hose before the Fire Department arrived."
The tenants never were heard from again, he said, but the landlord's insurance covered most of the damage and the tenants' large cash deposit just about covered the deductible.
DeDe's Rentals owner Keith Becker said his staff
conducts regular inspections at the 400-plus residences he manages in Sonoma County to
detect pot operations before properties are damaged.
"Because of the risk of fire, because of the risk of mold, the simple answer is we're not going to put up with it," Becker said.
Marijuana growing dominates discussions at twice yearly workshops for property owners and legal experts in tenancy laws, said Elaine Podchernikoff, executive director of the North Coast Rental Housing Association.
The most common question landlords ask is whether they're required to allow marijuana use and cultivation for tenants with medical marijuana recommendations.
The answer: No.
"Our attorney's stance is that federal law trumps state law," Podchernikoff said.
Growers often reconfigure homes, creating walls and spaces that can add to the difficulty in fighting fires, Fergus said.
Homes typically have a firewall between a garage and living quarters to help keep flames from spreading. But those precautions aren't built into interior walls and when gardens and added electrical loads are added to what would typically be a bedroom, the chance of a fire starting and spreading quickly is much higher, Fergus said.
Firefighters said some residents quickly alert them that they'll find a pot garden inside and assure them it's legal.
"You pull up, (the renters say) &‘Oh, yeah, we've got a permit.' Sure enough they've got a permit," Piccinini said.
Regardless of the legality of the situation, firefighters will attack the blaze.
"Overall the property loss isn't significant but in every situation they're just generating a lot of work for us. We're typically there 3 to 4 hours dealing with smoldering insulation and attics," Piccinini said.