The massive barn fire housing a medical marijuana grow-op in Chilliwack burned for most of the day on Monday.
Fire officials confirmed it was a licensed medicinal pot operation in a former chicken barn on Chadsey Road, and taxpayers are on the hook for the estimated $9000 in firefighter wages and other costs to put out the blaze.
The barn was completely destroyed and although the bulk of the flames were extinguished by 1 p.m., crews remained on scene until 4:30 p.m. to put out lingering hot spots.
“It’s a big issue for us,” said Mayor Sharon Gaetz.
The safety issues abound, for Chilliwack firefighters, as well as for the surrounding neighbourhood, especially since officials are kept in the dark about medical pot production.
“We have a problem here and we can’t afford to put our head in the sand,” she said.
Estimated costs to fire the barn fire included $5000 for paid-on-call firefighter salaries, and on-duty staff and associated truck costs adding another $4000.
The crux of the matter is that due to confidentiality issues around medical treatment or medicine, Health Canada does not inform municipalities about the number, existence or location of medical grow-ops in their communities.
“We’ve been told there could be as many as 600 in the area,” Gaetz said.
Since the new law taking medical marijuana production out of residences in favour of commercial licensed growers was put on hold by court injunction, and then upheld last year by the Federal Court of Appeal, the regulatory aspects are in a type of bureaucratic limbo.
It also means the huge and growing medicinal marijuana industry is paying “next to no taxes” when operating and producing crops on agricultural land, the mayor said.
Chilliwack council voted to restrict medical pot growing to industrial sites, but that was under the same legislation that was struck down on appeal.
“Health Canada will not give us any information about which operations are licensed, or what chemicals they are using, or how many plants exactly they are growing,” said Gaetz.
There are still organized crime connections with these grows that “can’t be combatted” because they aren’t privy to the details, she said.
The whole situation can put firefighters at great risk when they step foot onto these properties, said the mayor.
They could suffer electric shock or explosions from chemicals or faulty wiring.
“In this particular barn fire, we understand there was propane,” she said.
Pesticides and other chemical solutions are sometimes found in unmarked bottles.
“We have firefighters who do not know what they are walking into,” she said.
One of the pesticides that kills mites and is often used in marijuana cultivation, AVID 0.15EC miticide, is a concern to officials.
“The worrisome part for us with these pesticides is what happens when the water comes in contact with them,” she said.
The substances could leach into the environment via ditches and streams.
“The fact that there is no regulation from Health Canada is not only frustrating, but it creates dangerous situations.”