Wildfires pile woes on California pot industry after tough year

Dec 7 (Reuters) - Wildfires blazing through Southern California are worrying marijuana growers, who fear that smoke could damage their crops, the basis of a newly legalized industry in the state.

For the cannabis industry, recovering like the rest of the state from devastating fires two months ago that killed 44 people and ravaged scores of pot farms north of San Francisco's Bay area, the new wave of wildfires comes at a challenging time.

"This year has been some of the highest highs and lowest lows, where we've made so much progress toward a legal, regulated, normal future," Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, said by telephone. "But at the same time, we've had these catastrophic fires."

Four major fires in the Los Angeles area have forced 200,000 people to flee and destroyed hundreds of homes. And the region's westward Santa Ana winds blowing hot and dry from the California desert could exacerbate the situation.

Check out heart-stopping firsthand footage of the blaze:

Things could be worse for the marijuana industry in the state, Allen said, except for the fact that particularly hard-hit Ventura County does not issue permits for pot farms.

The smoke billowing from the latest blazes could be damaging for growers in San Luis Obispo County, up the coast to the north of the city, as well as in Los Angeles itself, he said.

"These are fires burning in a more urban-type development, and that smoke is going to contain potential contaminants that are not typically in wildfire smoke," Allen said.

San Luis Obispo County has scores of pot farms, some of them larger than one acre (0.4 hectare). Growers in Los Angeles, on the other hand, tend to set up indoor operations due to lack of open farmland, he said, meaning they are better protected from smoke. The city has more than 10,000 grows, the industry estimates, many of them small and tucked away in spare bedrooms or converted garages.

25 PHOTOS
Wildfire in Ventura County, California
See Gallery
Wildfire in Ventura County, California
VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 5: Smoke blows out of the burning palm trees as brush fire threaten homes on December 5, 2017 in Ventura, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 5: Firefighters work to control the western side of Grant Park as brushfire engulf most of the vegetation on the hill, on December 5, 2017 in Ventura, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A man waters his home as firefighters battle a wildfire as it burns along a hillside near homes in Santa Paula, California, on December 5, 2017. Fast-moving, wind-fueled brush fire exploded to about 10,000 acres in Ventura County Monday night, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / RINGO CHIU (Photo credit should read RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A firefighter battles a wildfire as it burns along a hillside near homes in Santa Paula, California, on December 5, 2017. Fast-moving, wind-fueled brush fire exploded to about 10,000 acres in Ventura County Monday night, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / RINGO CHIU (Photo credit should read RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman evacuates her home as a wildfire burns along a hillside near homes in Santa Paula, California, on December 5, 2017. Fast-moving, wind-fueled brush fire exploded to about 10,000 acres in Ventura County Monday night, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / RINGO CHIU (Photo credit should read RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images)
A firefighter looks at a house burnt to the ground during the Thomas wildfire in Ventura, California on December 5, 2017. Fast-moving, wind-fueled brush fire exploded to about 10,000 acres in Ventura County Monday night, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
A firefighter battles a wildfire as it burns along a hillside near homes in Santa Paula, California, on December 5, 2017. Fast-moving, wind-fueled brush fire exploded to about 10,000 acres in Ventura County Monday night, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / RINGO CHIU (Photo credit should read RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images)
Embers blow from burned trees as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A home burns as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke rises into the night sky as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 4, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
A burned truck smolders on a country road at night as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
Downtown is darkened by a power outage with smoke rising in the distance as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres in Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
Embers blow from burned trees as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
Property burns at night as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
The burned remains of crashed cars are seen at night on a country road as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
A structure burns as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
The burned remains of crashed cars are seen at night on a country road as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
Property burns at night as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
A home burns as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
Embers blow from a tree shortly before it fell down near burned cars as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
A home burns as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew
A fire crew passes a burning home during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A firefighter inspects a burning home during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Embers blow from burned trees as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/David McNew TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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California voters approved medical marijuana in 1996, despite a federal ban, and last year approved recreational use of the drug by adults. Since then, the state has been developing rules to allow recreational sales.

At the same time, California is the source of most of the nation's illegal marijuana farming, Allen estimated, with more than 55,000 marijuana growers.

The wildfires that ravaged the state's world-famous wine country in October did not necessarily burn the vines - but the smoke did increase the risk of tainting the flavor of grapes, wine industry officials in Napa, Sonoma and adjacent counties said.

Insurance claims from those blazes have topped $9 billion, state officials said on Wednesday.

The October wildfires significantly damaged or destroyed 73 licensed pot farms in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, Allen said. Others without permits were also hit, he added, although most of those were unlikely to come forward.

"It's been a very intense year," Allen said.

17 PHOTOS
Aftermath of Ventura County, California wildfire
See Gallery
Aftermath of Ventura County, California wildfire
The burnt remains of an automobile is seen at the Hawaiian Village apartments after a wind-driven wildfire swept into the city of Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
The remains of a home are seen, after it burned to the ground, during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
The remains of homes are seen, after they burned to the ground, during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A real estate sign post is seen next to the remains of a home, after it burned to the ground, during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A home's remains are seen, next to a burnt out truck, after they were destroyed, during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
The remains of a home are seen, after it burned to the ground, during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A house burns to the ground during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
The remains of a home are seen, after it burned to the ground, during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
The remains of a home are seen, after it burned to the ground, during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
The remains of a home are seen, after it burned to the ground, during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A firefighter hoses down flareups at the two story Hawaiian Village Apartment complex that burnt to the ground during the Thomas wildfire in Ventura, California on December 5, 2017. Firefighters battled a wind-whipped brush fire in southern California that has left at least one person dead, destroyed more than 150 homes and businesses and forced tens of thousands to flee. / AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
CALIFORNIA, USA - DECEMBER 5: The space where a house was is empty after the burned structure came down the hillside on December 5, 2017 in Ventura, California, United States. The fire has consumed over 50,000 acres according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire protection. (Photo by Justin L. Stewart/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 05: A fast-moving, wind-fueled wildfire swept through the Clearpoint neighborhood of Ventura destroying many homes early Tuesday, burning over 45,000 acres, destroying homes and forcing 27,000 people to evacuate. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 05: A fast-moving, wind-fueled wildfire swept through the Clearpoint neighborhood of Ventura destroying many homes early Tuesday, burning over 45,000 acres, destroying homes and forcing 27,000 people to evacuate. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
CALIFORNIA, USA - DECEMBER 5: The Thomas Fire in Ventura county has consumed over 50,000 acres according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire protection on December 5, 2017 in Ventura, California, United States. (Photo by Justin L. Stewart/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Burnt out cars and a house are seen during the Thomas wildfire in Ventura, California on December 5, 2017. Firefighters battled a wind-whipped brush fire in southern California that has left at least one person dead, destroyed more than 150 homes and businesses and forced tens of thousands to flee. / AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
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(Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jonathan Oatis)

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