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Cannabis More at Risk From Wildfires Than Other Californian Crops, Study Suggests

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Sep 20, 2022   
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Cannabis crops in California may be at a higher risk of damage from wildfire than other crops, according to a new study from scientists at the University of California Berkeley.

The new study, published in Ecosphere, proved cannabis’ unique vulnerability by overlaying different fire hazard maps with plots showing the locations of cannabis and other crop farms in the state. The researchers found that higher proportions of cannabis fields were located in “high” or “very high” fire hazard risk zones compared to other types of agriculture, such as grape crops or pasture.

In light of their findings, the researchers recommend that the state investigate options for providing crop insurance to licensed cannabis farms. Further economic analyses to understand the impact of wildfires on the cannabis industry may also be of use, they say.

Cannabis crops located in “high” and “very high” risk zones

Spurred on by climate change and rural development, wildfires have become an ever-increasing threat to people’s lives, homes, and livelihoods in rural California. In a state where much of the cannabis farming occurs outside of traditional agricultural zones – a hang-up from the days of state-wide prohibition – it has been suggested that cannabis farms may be subject to different risks compared to other agricultural crops.

To investigate this hypothesis, the UC Berkeley researchers identified and mapped out the locations of licensed cannabis farms in 11 key cannabis-producing counties: Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino, Monterey, Nevada, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Sonoma, Trinity, and Yolo.

They then overlaid this with the official fire hazard severity zones (FHSZs) established by CAL FIRE, as well as historic wildfire perimeters dating back to 1970. To assess future risk levels, the researchers also compared current agriculture activity areas against burn pattern projections made in a recent study by Moanga et al., which predicts likely wildfire hotspots between the years 2020 and 2100.

The researchers found that cannabis was the only agricultural type to have the majority of its cultivation area located in high or very high FHSZs. Collectively, around 36% of cannabis cultivation area was located in high-risk zones, with a further 24% at very high risk. Grape farming was the next-most at risk, with just under 12% of its total cultivation area in high or very high FHSZs.

“Our findings affirm that cannabis agriculture is geographically more threatened by wildfire than any other agricultural crop in California,” lead study author Christopher Dillis, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley's Cannabis Research Center, said in a statement. “This is an issue in almost all major cannabis-producing counties, not only those in Northern California.”

Additionally, more than 94% of the state’s cannabis cultivation area was found to be located in areas identified as future burn pattern hot spots for the period 2020-2100. No other agricultural type had more than 25% of its area located in these hot spots.

“This work only serves as a starting point for understanding how vulnerable cannabis farms may be to wildfire, as this analysis did not include indirect impacts, such as smoke and ash damage, which may be far-reaching,” Dillis said.

“However, we can confidently say that the places where cannabis continues to be grown are at greater risk now, and likely in the future as well.”

The impact of wildfires on the cannabis industry

Cannabis farms may be small in acreage compared to other Californian crops, but they make up a significant portion of the state’s agricultural gross domestic product (GDP). For context, the researchers say that the failure of 25% of the state’s cannabis production would equate to a loss of around $725 million, an amount larger than the export value of the state’s entire orange crop.

Yet, despite being such a valuable commodity within California, the federal prohibition of cannabis has made it exceptionally difficult for cannabis farms to purchase crop insurance.

“In light of the sector’s growing economic importance in the state, the vulnerability of cannabis to wildfire should be considered in future cannabis and rural development policies,” said co-author Ted Grantham, UC cooperative extension specialist and director of UC Berkeley’s Cannabis Research Center.

“The legal cannabis market in California is facing substantial headwinds from both market forces and a burdensome regulatory environment,” Grantham said. “This study shows that cannabis agriculture is uniquely exposed to wildfire impacts, which presents yet another challenge for licensed cultivators in the state.”

Based on their findings, the authors make several recommendations. Firstly, for cannabis farms that are already established in high-risk areas or projected hot spots, introducing effective fire safety programs may help to reduce the impacts of wildfires. Managing surrounding vegetation and creating fire breaks may help to slow fire outbreaks before they reach the farm, for example. Providing adequate resources and training on wildfire smoke exposure should also help to protect the health of workers in the event of a fire.

Additionally, they recommend that the state should pursue options for providing crop insurance to cannabis farmers who are ineligible for federal insurance programs. This would help to support the marginalized small-scale farms that are already disproportionately impacted by wildfires, and which may not have the resources to recover from losses without assistance.


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