The year 2020’s record-breaking wildfires in California and other Western states have compounded the dire impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic — and have similarly been politicized. Thus far, the blow they have dealt to the cannabis industry has been well weathered. But annual firestorms will pose a growing challenge for years to come — especially given that those regions of the US where legal cannabis cultivation is most advanced are also the most vulnerable to this devastating manifestation of ecological disequilibrium.
With fires emerging in early summer and now extending into December, authorities are having to rethink the notion of a discrete “fire season” in California. The total acreage burned across the state in 2020 exceeded 4 million, according to the CalFire tracking page — more than any year since record-keeping began in the 1932. Among several major fire systems statewide, the August Complex, centering on the Emerald Triangle counties of Mendocino and Trinity, passed the one-million-acre mark, prompting coinage of an entirely new term: “gigafire.”
Orange skies over San Francisco
From its monitoring instruments on the International Space Station, NASA determined that particulate matter from the 2020 fires was actually dispersing through the stratosphere, a previously unknown phenomenon with still unknown impacts on global climate.
Some 35 lives were lost across the West Coast, and in mid-September the skies above the heavily urban San Francisco Bay Area turned an eerie orange.
Air pollution levels were at historic highs, raising especially grim questions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, such as whether the poor air could worsen respiratory woes associated with the disease.
Questions were raised about a near-future inhabitability of the Golden State. Writer Bill McKibben asked, “Has the climate crisis made California too dangerous to live in?”
2020 also saw record-breaking wildfires in Colorado, while the fires that ravaged Oregon were termed “unprecedented” by Gov. Kate Brown.
All three states have seen a burgeoning legal cannabis industry take hold in recent years. What does the changing climate in these states portend for that industry’s future prosperity — or, perhaps, survival?
WINE, WEED & SMOKE
Thus far, media attention has focused on another mainstay mood-altering substance with a connoisseur clientele — California’s wine industry. The devastating Glass Fire damaged, if not destroyed, nearly 30 wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties.
But outright crop loss was far from the only problem. The foodie website Civil Eats warned: “In grapes, smoke damage imparts a burnt, ashy, even medicinal taste to the resulting wine. When wood burns, it releases volatile compounds called phenols, which can bind to grape sugars, only to be released during fermentation.” And the account added: “Cannabis may also be similarly impacted by volatile compounds, and possibly other chemicals if buildings — and not just wildlands — burned nearby.”
John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, told the agriculture trade journal Capital Press that high-end wineries are reluctant to produce from grapes exposed to smoke. Aguirre estimated the 2020 wildfires resulted in up to $500 million in crop losses statewide just from canceled or reduced grape contracts. California wine grapes are worth $4 billion annually “at the farm gate,” with Oregon and Washington clocking in at about $597 million combined. “Obviously, we can’t sustain these types of losses going forward and continue doing what we do,” Aguirre said.
Cannabis is also a product that is prized for flavor, and the cannabis industry has emulated viniculture in cultivating a cachet of terroir. But how the fires impacted cannabis (with a legal sector exceeding $3 billion in sales in 2019) has received less attention.
The University of California’s Berkeley Cannabis Research Center (BCRC) is undertaking a study of the question. With a grant from the state Bureau of Cannabis Control, the BCRC is preparing to interview growers across California about their experiences amid the devastation — crop losses or damage, impacts on sales, mitigation techniques. The pending study, Cannabis & Wildfire Risk: Current Conditions, Future Threats & Solutions for Farmers, will be released by the end of 2021, and will include a policy brief especially aimed at counties and localities.