How to Fireproof Your Cannabis Farm and Other Fire Safety Tips

Up here in the Mendocino Highlands we had another wildfire scare last week. The Bell Fire was just about four miles away from our ranch, at the bottom of the hill off Highway 101. Thanks to the immediate response of our Bell Springs Fire Brigade and the nearby CalFire station (plus a few helicopters and planes), it was contained rapidly and only burned 50 acres. Everyone living on the many properties in the surrounding area were evacuated in a hurry. This was not only a close call, but a warning.

Last year we also had more close calls. Two fires were about 15 miles away, one to the south east and another to the north east. Depending on wind speed and direction, 15 miles is not very far away. At one point we had to evacuate for three days due to a shift of the winds toward us, plus the intensity and density of the smoke. The sky at midday was a mixture of orange and black with white ashes falling like snow. It truly looked like hell on earth.

We have been thinking about fire preparedness for several years, as this is now the new unfortunate reality we live in. Hopefully these practices can help others avoid disaster.   

Preparing a Property for Fire Prevention

First off, CalFire has a list of recommendations that apply to all properties:

  • Clear a 100 feet “defensible space” around all structures, including combustable materials leaning against or under the house.
  • Trim and prune tree limbs and branches to at least five feet above ground to break the “fire ladder” of combustible material. Trim higher the closer they are to structures.
  • Clean out gutters regularly.
  • Mow your grassy areas, preferably in late spring, but if you do it later be careful of sparks from the mower blades. Or bring in goats to eat your grasses.
  • Have water hoses at hand.
  • Keep numerous fire extinguishers charged up to date, at least one per structure.
  • Make sure the address numbers to the property are large and posted at every turnoff along entrance roads, so firefighters can find your place.
  • Have emergency evacuation essentials packed, including animal carriers.
  • Have a plan for farm animals.

Beyond taking care of all of the above there are a number of things the savvy cannabis farmer can do.

Fire Prevention for the Cannabis Farm

It is a good idea to clean up fallen branches and leaves when mowing the meadow and pruning the trees. All of the branches can then be put through a wood chipper and set aside to weather through the winter. This pile can then be mixed with the leaves, grass cuttings and other compost and applied as top dressing to the cannabis beds in the springtime after it composts for a while.

Consider automating the drip irrigation system. Or if there is not a drip system, this is a good excuse to install one. It is not that difficult to place timers and solenoids on each branch of the system and the main supply line. Then, if an evacuation mandate comes, the timers will continue watering the crop.

Inspect any electrical supply lines and fixtures for frayed wires, proper fuses and system grounding. Install smoke detectors in buildings that are in use.

Properly store petroleum products and other combustable liquids away from structures to prevent burning embers from causing an explosion.

If possible, connect your own “mini-fire hydrant” to your water system with at least 6000 pressurized gallons of available water, and keep the water tanks full. We have a 1½ inch fire hose and just installed an adapter for the CalFire 2½ inch fire hose.

Plot out an alternate escape route if you live at the end of the road and the fire cuts off that exit. Clear fallen limbs and excess brush along the exit road.

When visitors arrive at the ranch, be aware that hot vehicle engines can start fires if the cars are parked in a field with tall grasses.

To mitigate accidental fires, we have a rule that you do not walk and smoke. Cannabis or tobacco, joint, bong or bowl –  if you smoke –  stop, sit down, use an ashtray, relax and be mindful.

What If You Have to Evacuate?

If evacuation is required, there is an emergency clause in the California cannabis regulations and Metrc guidelines whereby cannabis can be evacuated with emergency documentation by a licensed distributor. However, time is often of the essence. Therefore, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) allows licensees to transport their own cannabis off the premises if they give 24 hours notice and take the plants to a secured location with restricted access. However, each county may have specific requirements, so be sure to check in about this before a fire comes near.

One idea we stumbled upon in our fire-prevention research led us to buy a small trailer and outfit it with: a 200 gallon water tank, a gasoline transfer pump and a 1½ inch fire hose. We now have a “first response” fire trailer. This doubles as a way to bring compost tea to our second garden site, and triples as a way to spray water on the dirt road next to the garden for dust suppression. We performed fire drills for the crew to learn how to use the equipment.

Having a fire alarm signal audible to everyone on the farm and talking about fire awareness with all team members is crucial. On very smoky days with air quality over 100 AQI, everyone should use particle filtration masks, avoid strenuous tasks and long exposure to smoke –  inhaling even light smoke is not healthy. We have invested in some 3M 7502 respirators which cover half the face and allow for easy breathing.

Preserving the Crop

If you are spared an evacuation there is still work to be done for the crop. If a lot of ash has fallen on the plants, a leaf blower is the first step in protecting the girls from harm. Clear water can be sprayed on the leaf tops and backs. This will rinse off the ashes without making a lye paste – which some feared might happen during last year’s fire season. A water spray rinse will help open the stomata on the underside of the leaves, facilitating better plant “breathing.”

Last year, the worst smoke for us was in September. During harvest, just to be safe, right as we cut the plants and weighed them, we dunked each separate branch in a 55 gallon drum filled with diluted hydrogen peroxide. Then each branch was rinsed in a 55 gallon drum of clean water, changing the water after every four plants. None of the cultivars smelled of fire or tested for any contaminants.

These are some of the things to do to be prepared for an emergency. It has the benefit of keeping you occupied and taking your mind off the anxiety everyone feels during fire season. It’s not just about the house, your pets and all your possessions. It’s about the crop, the girls and the very way of life that has sustained us for many years.

Be safe! Be prepared! And may the Fire Gods spare us.

The post How to Fireproof Your Cannabis Farm and Other Fire Safety Tips appeared first on Cannabis Now.

Cannabis Planting: Summer in the Mendocino Highlands

Late June and July have been sizzling in dry heat up here in the mountains of the Emerald Triangle, home of Swami Select cannabis. Although we still had some frosty mornings in late May (cold enough to lose some tomato plants), luckily the young cannabis plants here at Ganja Ma Gardens survived. There were even two days of unexpected and blessed rainfall in early June. But now, in this heat, somehow the cannabis girls are loving it – as long as they get adequate water and nutrients from drip lines, compost teas and foliar sprays. At the present moment, the plants are looking good – a nice color green, with sturdy stalks and bushy branches. They are about as tall as they have ever been for this time of year, a testament to our springtime preparations. But no time to get cocky…We always think we’re gonna win the World Series when we start the season. It’s a long haul from sprouting to smoking.

Transplanting Preparations

May and June were busy with the many remaining tasks to get the garden ready for the immanent surge of transplanting. The compost tea soil drench continued, and the final amendments were added: a mix of homemade compost, worm castings and the neighbor’s alpaca manure. The new holes for the “hugellettes” (individual small mounds of living soil for each plant) we added to the garden this year were filled with short logs and sprinkled with gypsum powder, which helps loosen the clay in the soil. They were topped up into little mounds with a mixture of wood chips, leaves, manure, alfalfa meal, worm castings and our own soil mix.

Every year we do things a little differently, learning from the crises and problems of the previous year, refining our technique and responding to the challenges of climate change. This year, the biggest difference is that we had Leafworks test all of our seedling starts for their gender. They have a special way of analyzing the DNA code to look for the three genetic markers that determine maleness.

For several days in mid-May, we tested the samples. The crew mobilized around the process, which was precise and painstaking. We all wore sterile gloves and had to sterilize the scissors in alcohol after each leaf was clipped (the lab needs just the tip of a leaf after the plant has three tiers above the rounded cotyledon leaves). Next, we labeled each plant to coincide with the test tube that held its sample leaf tip. It takes a lot of concentration to keep track of everything.

We received the first batch of results about a week later, when we could tuck the first plants into their hugellette beds on May 28, which was a full three weeks earlier than the first planting in previous years. This means the plants were in their final spot in the ground for a longer period of time. And with the days getting longer and longer leading up to the Summer Solstice, the yield will hopefully increase.

Transplanting Day

Transplanting day is a rush – almost a sacrament. It’s a bit like the day the seeds are started, and a bit like the first morning of harvest. Considering the blazing hot sun, we decided to start the transplanting in the early evening so the delicate girls wouldn’t get sunburned. Later in June, we actually put shade cloth over the fresh transplants. 

In the process, the female starts were taken out of their one-gallon pots and placed in their mound beds, protected deep in the soil by a hardware cloth basket around the roots. Since they were transplanted so much earlier, there weren’t any root bound plants, which can be a problem if you have to wait until late June or even July for the girls to show their sex in their original pots. Once tucked in with a little water and a dash of mycorhyzol, each mound had a drip tube secured in a spiral around the plant, and the bed was covered with wheat straw mulch.

Once all the girls were in their beds, each plant had its blue Metrc tag (California Track and trace system) attached to its trunk. A feeding regimen consisting of a soil drench of compost tea and foliar feeding was set up. Then, the strongest males chosen for breeding were transplanted to larger pots and moved to isolation, far away behind the barn. The remaining males were put down, and we saved their soil for next year’s starts. 

For the next big task, we dipped the trellis system’s bamboo and metal poles in hydrogen peroxide to kill any mold and set them out in the sun’s rays for purification. Each mound was then fixed with a square of four vertical poles about four feet apart, ready for the attachment of the horizontal bamboo sticks with zip ties. We start with just one tier of horizontals, about two feet off the ground. As the plants shoot higher, we continue to add more tiers at two-foot intervals.

Fire Season Ready

One of the biggest jobs was getting the farm ready for fire season. Because we live in the Mendocino Highlands, at the edge of an old growth Douglas Fir Forest, this meant trimming off all the low hanging branches on the trees near the buildings – barn, sheds, cabins and the house. In regenerative fashion, we sent the trimmed-off branches through a woodchipper and set them aside for next year’s garden – yet another way cannabis farming can sequester carbon.  

In addition, the gutters and roofs were cleaned of debris and the ground around the buildings was raked clear. We also cleaned up the fallen trees that had blown down in the gusty winter winds along the entrance road.

Finally, in compliance with Cal Fire directives, we added street address numbers at each turn off along our long private road. We also have a fire hydrant and a small trailer set up with a 200-gallon water tank and a transfer pump with a 50-foot hose as a first response unit. May we never have to use it. But we can’t forget last year’s fires, which were just fifteen miles to the southeast and fifteen miles to the northeast of us. Fortunately, they did not damage the cannabis crop, although the grey skies may have stunted the yield a little. We p that California is spared the all-threatening fires this year.  

Come mid-July, we fed each plant about one half gallon of bokashi to stimulate microbial growth in the beds. The fermented grains consisted of wheat bran with EM-1 and molasses that we had started in late June. We also started a new compost pile using the wood chips from the fire preparation cleanup as a base, to which we add organic vegetable kitchen scraps and oak leaves, and then water and inoculate with compost tea.

Monitoring the Garden

Now, as the dog days of summer kick in, we maintain vigilance for pests and pathogens, and monitor the plants for any signs of distress. We will also keep checking each girl to confirm that she is still a female, because under stress, they can sometimes change their sex to male. 

In the meantime, we continue to focus on all the painstaking details of obtaining the permits we need for our CEQA (California Environment Quality Act) clearance so that we can continue cultivating the magic cannabis plant to supply our dear customers. It’s all a labor of love and our passion.

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