Written for The Argus Observer. Published on August 12, 2015.
ONTARIO, OR — A new concern has popped up on Ontario Fire Chief Al Higinbotham’s radar, and that is the fire hazard that cannabis grow sites — both medical and recreational — could have brought with them when they moved into Ontario.
It was a July 24 fire in an unoccupied Portland grow house that piqued Higinbotham’s interest. He said Portland fire officials initially thought the cause of the fire was related to cannabis growing practices. Ultimately the fire’s cause was found to be an error in electrical wiring, according to an article from Portland’s KATU, channel 2 news, but the concept still has Higinbotham worried.
“We’re seeing that a lot, people buying or renting houses here in Ontario and just using them for grow sites,” Higinbotham said. “We haven’t had any fires in grows yet, but that’s not to say that we won’t.”
Larry Wilson, owner of Malheur Realty in Ontario, said his office has been receiving “a lot of inquires” concerning lower-priced homes on the market. He said most of those inquiries are from folks who want to use those houses for their grow operations, though only have a handful have told him that’s what they’re looking to do.
“I just sold [a house] toward Vale and the guy said he had hunting dogs. As soon as he bought it, he put black in the windows and you can tell he’s growing in there,” Wilson said. “They don’t have to be nice homes, people just want to know [they’ll have access to] power and water.”
Wilson said he’s noticed people who want to start grows are more focused on homes in Ontario and Nyssa instead of places like Harper.
“I think it has something to do with being on the border,” Wilson said.
Higinbotham said he hasn’t been inside a cannabis grow to see for himself what goes into the operation, but he has been keeping an eye on the news coming out of Colorado, Washington and other parts of Oregon.
“In a marijuana grow, there are hazards,” Higinbotham said. “There are chemicals and electrical wires hanging down and often they cover the rooms with plastic and our firefighting operations will be totally different [going into a grow].”
Higinbotham said the crews entering a grow would take a more defensive mode than if they were entering a regular residence.
“We won’t let the plastic come down on the crew or let them get tangled in the wires,” Higinbotham said. “Also a lot of people who have grows will take out some of the interior walls to make one big room.”
With all of the interior walls out of a building, that building could become unstable in the event of a fire.
“If a fire occurred, the building could collapse on a firefighter sooner,” Higinbotham said.
Another piece of the grow operation that makes Higinbotham nervous is the use of lights, which require a large amount of power and can cause fires if not wired properly.
“We see it in residences too, where we find extention cord after extension cord hooked together and there’s all kinds of equipment [plugged in], and maybe a fish tank,” Higinbotham said. “It’s similar to what they’re doing with marijuana grows and they’ve overloaded their circuits.”
Richard Hoover, spokesman for the Oregon State Fire Marshal, said there isn’t any data available on how many fires have been caused by grow lights.
“There is no specific category that they can check that says grow light as a cause,” Hoover said. “There is a heat lamp category, but we have no way of knowing if the heat lamp is associated with any type of grow operation.They could be heating their snake or their chicken coop.”
As far as heat lamps go, last year 51 of the 13,000 fires in Oregon were caused by heat lamps of some kind. That number is up from 2012, when 24 heat lamp-related fires were reported.
Cannabis grows have made themselves at home in two types of buildings in the Ontario area: residential buildings and commercial buildings.
While the fire department can legally enter commercial buildings during reasonable building hours to check for fire hazards, they can’t do that with residential buildings.
“Your residence is your castle and you can do whatever you want [inside] to a certain extent,” Higinbotham said in a July 30 City Council meeting. “When you start spreading it to the outside [of the residence], we have some authority, but on the inside we don’t.”
City attorney, Larry Sullivan, said the Oregon Health Authority is currently working on regulations that will clarify how much information law enforcement and other city officials could access about cannabis grows within their jurisdictions.
Currently law enforcement can request whether a registered Oregon Medical Marijuana Program grower lives at a specific address, but they can’t get a list of all grows in their jurisdiction. Right now anyone over 21 in Oregon can have up to four plants in their house, which creates a potential for the use of grow lights in many area residences.
“At best, [Oregon Health Authority’s regulations] would give you the authority to find out where registered grow sites are, and that would be it,” Sullivan said at the Council meeting. “You’d still have to get an administrative subpoena to be able to go in and do an inspection.”
Sullivan said officials have to have a reason to believe that something is going on inside any residence that “might violate the fire code or give the fire department the right of entry” and that “just knowing someone is growing marijuana in a residence isn’t a good enough reason.”
The city could approach cannabis grows from a public nuisance perspective, Sullivan said, if there is “conduct occurring within the city that constitutes a public nuisance because it is a threat to public health and safety.”
Sullivan said the smell of a cannabis grow is most likely what could be constituted as a public nuisance.
“It’s anything that has a negative impact on people living nearby,” Sullivan said. “Smell is probably the major one.”
In order to regulate public nuisances, Sullivan said the city has to write an ordinance protecting the health and safety of the residents in the city.
“We’d have to find some kind of conduct around the activity and find that it is a public nuisance in order to write an ordinance that would be effective,” Sullivan said.
Higinbotham said even if nothing could be done to allow the fire department inside grow operations, it would be very helpful to know where the grow sites are located.
“It’d be nice to know where they are so we don’t put the crews in harm’s way,” he said.