We're winding along the hills and curves of Calaveras high country past the town of Rail Road Flat to a lookout on Jesus Maria Road.
Apple farmer Steve Wilensky's at the wheel. He’s headed toward the burn scar of the Butte Fire. Just over a year ago, the blaze burned 70,000 acres in Calaveras County.
Wilensky says understanding the scope of the Butte Fire is the best way to grasp how so many marijuana growers rushed into the county in such a short time.
Wilensky served as county supervisor here from 2004 - 2013.
He settled in the Sierra foothills of Calaveras in the 1980s after moving out from Michigan. He planted an apple orchard where he now cultivates 186 apple varieties.
“What drew me here was that there were seasons,” explains Wilensky. “A sense of place, a sense of community and a great level of civic engagement. There was tolerance. A (willingness) to live and let live.”
As we crest a hill and come into the hot burn of the Butte Fire, our conversation stops short.
All you can see are barren hills studded with black shards sticking out of the ground. It’s a 360 degree view of what used to be pine, manzanita.
“See that little road down there?” Wilensky asks, pointing into the canyon. “That's Hawver Road and there were at least forty to fifty houses along that road that all burned,” he adds.
Wilensky witnessed firefighters battling the blaze in this area. He says he showed them how to access the canyons. He said they led a heroic effort and kept the fire from engulfing three nearby towns, including Mountain Ranch.
Calaveras resident Bill Schmiett's wasn’t one of the lucky ones. His Mountain Ranch home was destroyed. Earlier in his life, Schmiett worked as a firefighter.
“I’ve seen fire up close before. But it’s a whole different ball game when everything you had is a big pile, a smoking pile of ash and twisted metal roof.”
Schmiett is a realtor. In December, right on the heels of the Butte fire, his phone starting ringing like crazy.
“Everybody in the world wanted to buy a piece of land in Calaveras County,” explains Schmiett. “I’m not sure how the county got the national exposure it did. There was quite a bit of activity in bare land for growers.”
Schmiett recalls that most callers were candid about their intentions to grow cannabis.
Burnt-out homes still had wells, septic systems and ways to connect to power. Schmiett says that's what growers were looking for. Schmiett says parcels worth 75 thousand were going for 200 thousand.
Out of town growers were grabbing land before the county or state could regulate marijuana cultivation.
While the Butte fire raged through the Sierra, the California Legislature approved a bill that would pave the way for medical marijuana regulations. Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law on October 9, 2015. That law initially set a March 2016 deadline for counties to set their own rules on medical marijuana - otherwise state regulations would apply.
Counties scrambled and several decided to ban marijuana grows all together rather than rush through regulations. Meanwhile, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors moved to regulate marijuana. But several factors delayed passage of the county’s “urgency ordinance” until May 10, 2016.
As a result there was a nearly six month gap between the Butte Fire and the County’s permitting process going into effect. That gap led to what some have nicknamed “the green rush” of Calaveras.
Peter Maurer is Director of the Calaveras County Planning Department. He says the county anticipated 200-300 applications to grow marijuana.
Instead, says Maurer, “we received 740 commercial applications and an additional 250 personal (or caregiver) operations.”
Maurer says the intent of the County ordinance was to create a legal registration process. One that would bring in funding to support code enforcement and the Sheriff’s office.
“Let’s regulate it. Let’s fund the resources we need to keep it under control,” explains Maurer. “Eliminate the bad players, support the good players.”
To date, the county’s taken in roughly 3.7 million dollars in registration fees.
Maurer explains, “The first prong of enforcement is to go after those who didn’t register at all. “Those that are just not going to bother to register. The Sheriff’s Department and D.A. can go after those and remove them from the community.”
Caz Tomaszewski is a local grower and the Executive Director of Calaveras Cannabis Alliance which represents the industry in the county. He says the CCA advocates for “the identification and removal of illicit marijuana grows.”
Tomaszewski says his organization has spent considerable time and money educating local leaders and residents about the profile of local marijuana growers represented by CCA.
He sees a stark contrast between long-time growers who want to grow marijuana under the county’s legal framework and those who rushed in after the Butte fire. Tomaszewski likens the latter to prospectors.
“You know, people hear from a couple of buddies at the grow shop that a particular county is a good place to grow. And they go and buy two pieces of land and move out the next week.”
Tomaszewski argues that’s a change from how earlier marijuana growers established themselves in Calaveras.
Before the Butte fire, he says would-be growers from outside Calaveras were vetted by locals. He says the profile of growers in Calaveras is different from other northern California counties where marijuana is cultivated. We tend to have “younger, more progressive growers” who take a more “deliberate approach.”
By contrast, Tomaszewski categorizes the flood of growers who came after the Butte Fire as largely ignorant about local regulations as well as local culture.
“And if you move into a rural place you've never been before and you don't know the neighbors and you don't know the local customs, there's a high potential to offend people,” Tomaszewski explains.
The main complaints the CCA fields from Calaveras residents fall into three main categories: neighbors don't like the smell of the cannabis crop; they complain about fast driving on rural roads and they take issue with dogs on the loose.
Tomaszewski says tensions around marijuana have never been as high as they are now. He believes the climate has led to rhetoric that tars all growers with the same brush: whether they're people going through the county's legal permitting process or illicit growers.
Calaveras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio links a recent rise in crime to transient marijuana workers who come to Calaveras during harvest season.
“We have one guy we caught, I believe he was from Kansas,” recalls DiBasilio. “He had burglarized either three or four houses. So what brought him out here was marijuana, he was a trimmer. And now he’s robbing our homes.”
Just last week the Sheriff led a big raid on an illicit grow near West Point. “We did some flyovers and actually found 4 properties with grows on them,” says DiBasilio.
The raid led to more than 20 arrests. The Sheriff said they found 750 marijuana plants at these sites plus 500-600 pounds of processed marijuana.
Between pot raids and local patrols, the Sheriff says he doesn't have the bodies he needs to get the job done. He’s looking to hire several additional deputies. But DiBasilio says the county has one of the lowest salary rates in the state which makes it challenging to attract qualified applicants.
Calaveras County resources are overwhelmed.
This rural county already faced considerable challenges before the Butte Fire. A high unemployment rate, problems with meth addiction and trees dying from beetle infestation. Add the potential ecological impact of illicit pot grows on the Sierra landscape.
Former county supervisor Wilensky is uncertain about how his community will find their way. But he’s not without hope.
“It’s kind of like Lemony Snicket,” says Wilensky. “A Series of Unfortunate Events have befallen us and it's going to take everything we've got and everybody we have to be able to come out on the other side of this with a decent community.”
Calaveras voters will have their say about how the county should move forward next week.
They'll decide on two pot-related ballot measures: one to tax and the other to regulate local marijuana.