The situation has only gotten worse since MSN first reported on it, as have the fires in grow houses. An interesting point from the MSN report is that location is no bar to the dangers from the houses; that's because the indoor growers are making so much money from pot agriculture that they can afford to rent or buy in the very best neighborhoods. After turning a house into a danger zone then fixing it up just enough to fool the innocent buyer, they move to another house and repeat the performance.
There was one article, from years before the MSN one, about the dangers from grow houses that described situations so awful they were almost funny. The article was published in a police journal in Canada and featured anecdotes from police raids on the houses. There didn't seem to be a licensed electrician among the growers, and their grasp of basic chemistry was tenuous; they got carbon monoxide confused with carbon dioxide as a way to stimulate plant growth.
I'm sorry I didn't save the article but these two are enough to convey the gist:
Move over, meth: Marijuana 'grow houses' an increasing menace
By Melinda Fulmer of MSN Real Estate
A home that was used to grow pot can be a nightmare for a homebuyer, with problems ranging from mold to bad wiring.
When Mikey and Zeina Kostelny found their first home in the suburbs of Altadena, Calif., it appeared to be a buyer's dream, complete with fresh paint, carpet and fixtures.
But that dream quickly dissolved into nightmare after the sale closed in late 2008 as the couple began to discover problems hidden behind its glossy finishes — from mold to gas leaks to bad wiring — all stemming, they believe, from its undisclosed past as a marijuana grow house.
"After we moved in, we smelled fresh paint and then another smell," Zeina Kostelny says. An inspection later revealed dangerous Stachybotrys mold throughout much of the house, forcing them to move and foot the tab for more than $42,000 in remediation and repair. Months later, an electrical fire pushed them into an apartment again.
The tsunami of vacant, bank-owned properties in many parts of the country has helped fuel a surge in indoor marijuana production, turning once-empty homes like the Kostelnys' into high-dollar and high-risk pot farms that spell trouble for prospective buyers and neighbors.
"In the last several years, we've seen a dramatic increase in the number of grow houses," says Covina, Calif., Police Chief Kim Raney, who has overseen several busts. "It's almost a perfect environment, because you have had a housing market that's upside down, people losing their houses to foreclosure and people trying to find ways to make their mortgage," he says.
Pot house 101
A total of 4,666 marijuana grow houses were busted in the U.S. in 2009, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration — just a tiny fraction of the number in operation, experts say.
Most grow houses go unnoticed or unreported, for fear of retaliation from the gangs — many of them Asian — that run them, according to the DEA.
And the houses are often in places you'd hardly suspect, such as gated Florida communities and upscale Georgia neighborhoods — even Beverly Hills, California.
How can growers afford such high rent? It's easy. With only 50 plants in a house, and at least three growing cycles a year, growers can easily net as much as $300,000 a year from sales to dispensaries and buds sold on the black market, says Ron Brooks, president of the National Narcotic Officer's Associations' Coalition.
"Marijuana is so lucrative as a crop," he says, and it carries less prison-time risk than other drugs.
Of course, it's not just the grower taking on risk. Once marijuana-growing operations move into your neighborhood, they bring more danger and more damage than vagrants, thieves or taggers could ever do.
"You've got fire hazards and properties that aren't being well-maintained," Brooks says. "No one's living there, or maybe someone's there who's armed and guarding the house."
The damage they do
Indeed, police say, indoor growing may sound benign, with row after row of bushy pot plants sprouting up under ultraviolet lights, but these operations can devastate properties.
Most grow houses wind up having extensive mold damage because of the irrigation and moisture needed for the plants, says Dennis Rommelfanger, a home inspector with U.S. Inspect in Huntington Beach, Calif., who has seen several of these houses.
Mold is an expensive problem to deal with. It is also one of the hardest problems to accurately assess, Rommelfanger says, especially if the surfaces have been painted over, as they were in the Kostelnys' home.
"We do use moisture meters," he says.
But the reading has to be 20% moisture or higher for him to advise deferring a sale, and he says a home can have mold damage with a lower moisture reading than that.
What's your home worth?
Big-time marijuana growers also cut holes in the ceiling to provide ventilation to their plants and run water lines. Many change the ductwork and rewire the house to accommodate the hot grow lights and other equipment such as humidifiers and dehumidifiers.
And most growers snake wires up to the power line to bypass the electric meter, not only because their work is electricity-intensive, but because high meter readings can tip police off to their whereabouts.
One Pennsylvania real-estate investor, Steve Babiak, commenting on real-estate investor site BiggerPockets.com, recalled a house where growers had cut holes in the foundation to hook up jumper cables to bypass the electric meter.
[END MSN REPORT]
Fire District Officials Announce New Training for Fighting Fires at Marijuana Grow Houses
Bay City News Service via Patch
February 21, 2014
Contra Costa fire officials are also encouraging residents to report homes showing signs of marijuana growing operation.
As the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District responds to a growing number of fires at marijuana grow houses, the district is turning to new strategies to keep firefighters and community members safe from the unique dangers posed by these fires.
Firefighters risk their lives on a regular basis, Contra Costa Fire Protection District investigator Vic Massenkoff said, but a blaze at a large-scale pot growing operation pose some of the greatest hazards for fire personnel.
District officials this week announced new training procedures for fighting fires at major residential marijuana grows. Firefighters are being educated on how to spot the signs of a grow operation and to fight blazes at grow houses defensively, or outside of the home, rather than heading inside, where the risks to firefighters are often too great.
The fire district is also instructing firefighters to wait until PG&E personnel have turned off power at the house before going inside.
"There's no material possession that's worth the life of our firefighters," Contra Costa fire Capt. Robert Marshall said.
The emphasis during these firefights is also on preventing the blaze from spreading to neighboring homes, fire officials said.
Over the past few years, the fire district has battled about 35 fires at large pot grow operations, fire officials said. Large-scale grows are popping up in communities throughout the Bay Area and statewide, in addition to the nine cities and unincorporated areas of Contra Costa County covered by the fire district.
"It's an epidemic as far as how many homes are being converted to full marijuana growing operations," Massenkoff said.
The problem is so big that a 2011 study by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientist Evan Mills found that some 8 percent of California's energy is consumed by indoor growing operations. [Pundita note: Mills conducted the study on his own time]
PG&E can usually spot customers housing a large marijuana grow when the electricity meter shows commercial-level electricity usage, used to power the grow lights, ventilation and humidity systems used to cultivate marijuana, Massenkoff said.
To avoid detection, large-scale growers typically re-wire a home's electrical system so that it bypasses the utility meter, fire officials said. But the rigged electrical systems often fail, sparking fires that can travel quickly through a home's walls and a phenomenon known as arcing, in which electricity travels back and forth between electrical wires and metal surfaces. This makes firefighters responding to a fire at a grow house much more vulnerable to electrocution.
Other hazards usually found at major pot growing operations include barred windows and doors and extra walls built to mask the operation, Massenkoff said.
On Jan. 24, Contra Costa fire crews found many of the typical red flags while fighting a two-alarm blaze at a home on Tampico Drive in Pittsburg that housed a major marijuana growing operation, the investigator said. The house was completely destroyed, and firefighters had to battle the blaze from outside after the home's roof collapsed -- an all-too-common occurrence in marijuana grow fires, Massenkoff said. That fire "was the straw that broke the camel's back," the fire investigator said.
While no fire personnel were injured in the blaze, he said, "the hazards to firefighters became very evident in this fire...we realized it was time to provide new direction to firefighters on how to deal with fires at these types of properties."
Massenkoff said large-scale marijuana grows are usually uncovered when a fire breaks out, but sometimes law enforcement agencies find out about them from suspicious neighbors.
Contra Costa fire officials are encouraging more residents to come forward when they spot the signs of a growing operation in their neighborhood. Fire officials say red flags include barred windows in neighborhoods where no other homes' windows have bars and windows that are shaded at all hours of the day.
Residents should also be wary of new residents who are never seen moving personal items into their home and have frequent visitors coming and going, district officials said. Massenkoff said fire officials are also hoping more criminals are prosecuted when a fire breaks out due to a large-scale marijuana growing operation.
Several suspects linked to grow house fires in Contra Costa County in recent years have been charged with recklessly causing a fire, he noted. However, in many cases, large-scale marijuana growers whose grow houses burn down are able to use their massive profits to quickly purchase or rent a new grow house, Massenkoff said.
Yearly profits from an average grow house in Contra Costa County total at least $1.5 million, he said.