California wildfires destroyed legal marijuana crops

GLEN ELLEN, Calif. -- The cost of the deadliest wildfires in California history is rising. Forty-two people were killed, and on Monday, authorities said flames destroyed at least 8,400 homes and buildings -- a significant jump.

That's not all that went up in smoke.

The fires that burned through California's wine country destroyed most of the crop Erich Pearson had just harvested -- no, not grapes, but marijuana.

"This was a 40,000 square foot barn, which is about an acre in size," Pearson said. "There's processing and packaging for cannabis in here."

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Damage to Sparc's facility in Glen Ellen, Calif., is shown.

CBS News

In September, Pearson began picking a bumper crop, the first harvest since marijuana for recreational use became legal in California.
 
"Long days of hard work but it's very exciting," said Pearson, who is CEO of Sparc, a company that has been running medical marijuana dispensaries since 2009.

He had hoped to capture some of the $5 billion dollars expected to be spent annually on legal marijuana in California. Last month, CBS News toured Sparc's new Sonoma facility where marijuana was being processed and prepared for retail sale. Cases of marijuana were stacked along the wall.

But then, wine country went up in flames.

"If it wasn't metal, it's not here anymore. I mean, there were plastic trays, containers and things. The fire was so hot you can't even see that stuff anymore."

Many of the marijuana plants survived. But damaged by smoke and ash, they will lose much of their value in the retail market. 

Pearson said he couldn't say how much he lost at this point. 

"A lot!" he said.

And he's not alone. There are at least 3,000 marijuana farming operations nearby. The Growers Association estimates tens of millions have been lost.

"It's a setback, but on the other hand we are trying to make lemonade out of lemons," he said, admitting that they'll find a way to survive.

Growing marijuana already faced a troubling reality: the federal government still considers the harvest a crime, so there is no insurance coverage for marijuana.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.