JARDINE: Speculation on Rim fire easily defies containment

jjardine@modbee.comSeptember 4, 2013 

    alternate textJeff Jardine
    Title: Local columnist
    Coverage areas: People, issues, the community
    Bio: Jeff Jardine joined The Bee's staff in 1988 after a decade at the Stockton Record. He covered sports before moving into news in 1996 and became the Local Columnist in 2003. He graduated from University of the Pacific in 1979, majoring in communications and history.
    Recent stories written by Jeff
    On Twitter: @jeffjardine57
    E-mail: jjardine@modbee.com

Shortly after the Rim fire blew up from a 200-acre blaze into a hell with serious anger management issues, rumors about its origin began circulating.

One suggested that a deer hunter — the archery season began the same day as the fire — might have left a campfire unattended, and it took off in the ridiculously dry conditions.

The more popular theory, as espoused by the Twain Harte fire chief at a community meeting, was that a drug cartel operating in the remote Clavey River canyon started the fire that burned 237,341 acres as of Wednesday afternoon. Containment is at 80 percent. By the time it's done, the Rim fire could be California's third-largest wildfire on record.

A video of Twain Harte's community meeting ended up on YouTube, as does just about everything these days. Bay Area newspapers, the Los Angeles Times and TV stations picked up on it, and suddenly the rumor spread like, well, you know.

Never mind that the fire official who made this revelation, Todd McNeal, hadn't attended the twice-daily briefings conducted by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the U.S. Forest Service and the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Department, sheriff's deputy Scott Johnson said.

"I've been at every one of them, and I have not seen him," Johnson said.

And even if McNeal had been there, Johnson said, "the cause of origin hasn't been discussed at any of them."

Turns out the chief was wrong. The San Jose Mercury News reported Wednesday that U.S Forest Service officials have ruled out a pot grow as the cause of the fire.

McNeal certainly wasn't alone in suspecting a drug cartel was responsible. Posts on Facebook and other social media suggested such from the get-go.

And I received a call from a friend in the Groveland area a few days after the Rim fire began and before Twain Harte's community meeting. The friend told me a more detailed story, which he'd heard firsthand from people supposedly well-connected with the firefighting community. In their version, the pot farmers torched their crop purposely because they thought law enforcement was about to crack down on them.

Yet another spin suggested someone has been arrested in connection with the blaze. Not true, said Johnson. Presumably, the suspect would be locked up in the Tuolumne County Jail, which has no such guests at the inn, he said.

I chatted with folks familiar with the burn area, including fire officials, cattle ranchers who lost animals in the fire, and a wildlife biologist who has been monitoring deer in the area.

They've all stumbled upon pot plantations in the forest at one time or another. They've found drip-irrigation systems. There is video evidence, too.

"We had trail cameras up last spring to catch mountain lion movement and caught two growers coming down the trail with pruning shears," Nathan Graveline, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife biologist.

We can presume these fellows weren't simply trimming underbrush to reduce fuel and lessen the fire danger.

"We also see a lot of interesting traffic, new car tracks coming in during the night, gangbangers out in the middle of winter and probably miles of black drip line," Graveline added. "We report all the stuff we see to law enforcement. From what I've heard through wardens, the cartel in control of this area has not been violent. Up to last year, they were not finding guns or booby traps in the grows. This year, things have changed a bit and they've found AK-47s (assault rifles) and other weapons."

Johnson confirmed that drug enforcement officials recently did recover an AK-47, though not in the same part of the Stanislaus forest where the Rim fire began.

Pot-growing in the Sierra and foothills has been going on for decades, often by cartels who leave undocumented workers there to guard the farms. They use remote, rugged areas where campers and hikers aren't likely to venture.

Authorities in Tuolumne County will seize over 200,000 marijuana plants over the course of a year, Johnson said.

"Traditionally, we're one of the top five in the state," he said. "It's fallen a little because there are more indoor grows. But it's not unusual at all to seize 15,000 to 20,000 plants in a day."

The sheriff's narcotics investigators work with other drug agents and forest personnel involved in the Campaign Against Marijuana Project, which has the handy acronym of C.A.M.P.

They use aircraft and rely on information from rangers, game wardens, loggers and other boots-on-the-ground folks in the hills.

Even so, no one actually involved in the Rim fire investigation ever said, publicly, that pot growers caused the fire. To the contrary, they've now denied it point-blank, telling the newspaper that the landscape where the fire began wasn't suited for dope-iculture.

As so often happens, when facts are unavailable, conjecture will do.

Perhaps some folks heard radio chatter from a veteran pilot involved in the air assault against the inferno.

"This thing is burning trees like grass!" the pilot said.

Wait — did he say "grass?" Isn't grass another name for marijuana?

Not this time.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

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