Update 12:25 p.m.: Authorities traced the massive wildfire to a careless hunter who reportedly started an illegal camp fire and lost control of it. The Chron is reporting that the hunter, who has not been identified, was in a remote part of the Stanislaus National Forest when he started his fire. NO charges have been filed at this time.
Original Story 9:30 a.m.: Nobody likes marijuana grows on public land. Not cannabis users and marijuana legalization advocates -- for whom renegade grows are a constant reminder that the drug still causes illegal activity -- and not law enforcement, who roll out the "Mexican cartels are growing weed in our national forests" trope whenever convenient.
For some reason, it was convenient for Twain Harte Fire Chief Todd McNeal, who told a public meeting in Tuolumne County that he and others "highly suspect[ed]" the Rim Fire was caused by an outlaw pot grow. That theory was at last laid to rest Wednesday by U.S. Forest Service officials, who confirmed cannabis had nothing to do with the fourth-largest wildfire in California history.
So what did -- and why did McNeal even bring weed into the conversation?The problem with the marijuana theory is that it sounded plausible at first; sure, there are marijuana grows in the woods, and sure, they use generators and other things that could spark. But that theory became absurd even after the smallest bit of reflection.
The area in which the fire began is a remote hillside, inaccessible except by long hikes and the air. Certainly it's possible to haul in -- by hand or by backpack -- the huge bags of dirt, fertilizer and food necessary to run a pot camp. But it is also extremely difficult, not to mention ridiculously suspicious -- this is an area visited by tourists from across the globe.
Remember, illegal drugs are all about money. This is not a place where a pot grow could have made a lot of money. You need a flat area of land, preferably with a southern exposure, to grow a good crop -- and outdoor weed, the price of which is already depressed, grown in the middle of the woods by an amateur crew (as such a remote grow would have been) would simply not be worth it.
Further, this is the gateway to Yosemite National Park -- this is one of the most heavily visited areas in the western United States. And while no doubt weed is being grown somewhere in that part of the Sierras -- the climate is nearly identical to the hot, dry and long summers in Mendocino and Humboldt -- to do it in an area with thick tourist traffic might allow the growers some cover on the ground, to hide a patch big enough to be profitable from the air would be an extraordinary feat of subterfuge.
We may never know what exactly led McNeal to posit his theory in public. The incident commander with whom we spoke to on Tuesday indicated that he'd heard nothing to support the theory, which investigators -- who reached the area where the fire started earlier this week -- debunked without offering up any alternative source of the flames.
If anything, the incident tells us more about the attitudes of law enforcement in rural areas, who believe pot grows on public lands are a legitimate nuisance, but also a convenient bogeyman -- but happily, also a dying vestige of prohibition, as the plant becomes more and more accepted.