Lit Up

U.S. Forest Service officials say illegal pot grows are prevalent in the Los Padres National Forest.

On July 26, authorities rescued seven people from Bottcher’s Gap, who were initially identified by Cal Fire officials as hikers. But Monterey County Sheriff’s deputies later said they were illegal pot growers who were trapped for days by the Soberanes Fire.

The group told authorities their 900-plant cannabis grow, deep in the Los Padres National Forest, burned up when the flames blazed through. With the evidence – worth an estimated $1 million – gone, no one was arrested, Sheriff’s Cmdr. John Thornburg says.

Investigators with the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office say it’s uncommon to prosecute illegal pot grows in Big Sur, such as this one. But they know they are there.

Every year, sheriff’s deputies find about 12 to 15 illegal marijuana farms in the dense Los Padres National Forest, Thornburg says, up to 10,000 plants total. By the time authorities discover a grow, they are usually fully operational – but unmanned when law enforcement arrives.

Some of these farms illegally dip into water sources, while powering lights and equipment with generators. Growers sleep in makeshift shelters camouflaged by branches. Deputies say these encampments can pose a fire hazard.

When authorities find a grow, they harvest the plants, and destroy them, Thornburg says. But without suspects, cases rarely make it to court.

There have been tense encounters between growers and firefighters: On Aug. 1, deputies received a call that a group of growers were attacking a dozer operator. Authorities searched for six hours, but never found any suspects.

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