The Phoenix Rising from the Ashes: Heroes of the 2017 North Bay Fires

The DOPE Magazine team solicited nominations from the community and set out to meet the heroes of the wildfires that took place starting on October 8, 2017, in the Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake Counties in California. The wildfires killed at least 40 people, dubbed the most destructive in state history. This piece is written with sincere gratitude to those who shared their stories in the midst of tragedy, and to all of the firefighters, police, dispatchers and first responders who remain heroes every damn day.

Ashley Oldham of Frost Flower Farms awoke to her friend, Ira Chamberlain, banging on the front door of her Redwood Valley home as the fires approached. Fifteen minutes after Oldham and her daughter safely got out of the house, it was engulfed in flames. Although Oldham lost her home, processing facilities, two additional commercial greenhouses (that had just arrived on site and hadn’t yet been built) and a lifetime of genetics work, she did not completely lose her cannabis farm, which was the fourth farm permitted in Mendocino County.

Heroes of the California Wildfires
Ashley Oldham, owner of Frost Flower Farms, lost her Redwood Valley home and most of her belongings in the North Bay Fires last October. After being suddenly awakened by a neighbor banging on her front door and with engulfing flames just a short distance away, Oldham vigorously sprayed water on her green house and cannabis plants. Through her efforts she was able to save her cannabis farm, her livelihood, the fourth permitted cannabis farm in Mendocino County. Photo taken Nov. 4, 2017

Oldham fought the fire with a garden hose and returned to her property to continue to fight the flames, hiking back in even when law enforcement would not allow her to pass road barricades in the ensuing days. Oldham is one of many cannabis farmers who did not receive the same consideration as neighboring wine grape farmers, who were able to tend to their crops in the days following the fires. Oldham and Ira, together and separately, saved multiple homes in their neighborhood by jumping onto roofs to set up sprinklers and putting out spot fires. Oldham showed DOPE a soil-pile-turned-spot-fire that wouldn’t quit and the scorched line of the fires on her property, which butted right up to her large, cannabis plant-filled greenhouse. Oldham is hopeful that these remaining plants—approximately 70 percent of her forecast harvest this year—will pass testing.

Heroes of the California Wildfires
The thick smoke from the North Bay Fires caused the sun to become red and sunsets to be vibrant. This is a fire sunset in St. Helena on Oct. 13, 2017, just days after what’s said to be one of the most destructive wildfires in California history.

Across town, cannabis producer and distributor CannaCraft responded to the emergency by opening their doors to evacuees during the onset of the fires, then donated 12,000 square feet of office space for use as American Red Cross headquarters. They also converted industrial space into emergency housing, allowed RVs and trailers in their lot, and provided electricity, water, portable bathrooms and showers. CannaCraft additionally donated $100,000 worth of products to local dispensaries to be provided to evacuated patients in need of medicine. As Dennis Hunter, CannaCraft Co-CEO, puts it: “We have a responsibility to assist our community. I hope our actions demonstrate what our industry is truly about, and assists in de-stigmatizing the negative perception [of cannabis] held by some.”

Heroes of the California Wildfires
The Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, took a huge hit this past October in what’s said to be one of the most destructive wildfires in California history. Photo taken Oct. 23, 2017

CannaCraft also donated the land in Santa Rosa for Burners Without Boarders to create “Oasis Village,” which serves as temporary housing for those who have been displaced by the fires. Camp Epic, a theme camp at Burning Man, gifted the shipping containers to house 75 people, and an additional 50 people will be housed in RVs on the site, complete with bathroom units, dining and lounge tents and a mobile kitchen run by a caterer who fed first responders when the fires hit. The project is managed by volunteers and self-funded by donors, along with a fundraising goal of $100,000. At the time this piece was penned, Oasis Village was awaiting residency permits from the City of Santa Rosa.

Patrick King—aka “The Soil King,” Founder of The Soil King in Cloverdale—and his team managed to harvest their cannabis farm as the fires were approaching. King then organized a number of relief efforts focused on the Mendocino and Lake Counties, and he hasn’t stopped since. King created a non-profit organization and led a drive for monetary donations, raising approximately $40,000 so far. King also provided space to create donation and supply drop-off locations, an animal sanctuary and a distribution warehouse of supplies and donations that moved $50,000-100,000 worth of donations per day. He also set up evacuation centers in the Redwood and Potter Valleys. King is particularly empathetic to undocumented workers who do not speak English and cannot bring their family to a shelter without the risk of being deported, so he sent trailers and trucks with supplies out to the beaches and coastal areas where many of these families were staying.

Heroes of the California Wildfires
A colorful sunset sets over the burnt Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa on Oct. 23, 2017, just days after the most destructive wildfires in California’s history swept through the region.

Various dispensaries are doing their part in fire relief fundraising, both in-store and by hosting events dedicated to fire relief. Mercy Wellness of Cotati is a great example of this; Director Brandon Levine says, “We lost a lot of product ourselves, maybe 1,000 pounds of weed, but we still have enough to give away during this stressful time, when patients need it the most.” Mercy is organizing a donation drive to hand out free product to patients affected by the fires, which has totaled over $100,000 in donated product so far, and is matching every dollar donated in the shop. When DOPE visited the team at Mercy one evening, two employees, Zach Monday and Pat Keenan, who both lost their homes, were there rolling joints to be donated to others. Felicia Accomazzo is the Project Manager who organizes these donations. Accomazzo, a fire victim herself, medicates with cannabis to treat her brain cancer and knows the importance of having access to medicine.

Heroes of the California Wildfires
The days immediately following the outbreak of the North Bay Fires, Katie Callahan of Petaluma, spent the majority of her time at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds Racetrack Stables in Santa Rosa, volunteering her time caring for livestock and horses that were rescued from the fires. Photo taken Oct. 23, 2017

Jessica Peters, Founder of Moxie Meds and avid animal lover, spent eight days traveling between Oakland and the North Bay to rescue an estimated 300-400 animals. After a harrowing experience of rescuing goats and a longhorn cow from a corral that was on fire, Peters rented a U-Haul cargo van and filled it with twenty animal carriers, food, medicines and other supplies. Peters transported rescue animals to the fairgrounds and various animal shelters, while 18 rescue animals stayed at her own home, where she paid for veterinary bills out of pocket.

Jessica Lilga, Co-founder of Alta Supply, a cannabis distribution company, is organizing a farm-to-farm aid program. Growers unaffected by the fires can donate flower, which can be tested by SC Labs, who is offering testing services for all donations. These flower donations will be sold by Alta Supply to dispensaries, and 100 percent of profits go to growers in need. Lilga implores, “For those of us who are among the lucky ones, let’s channel our blessings . . . Thank you for being part of what makes our industry so special. Let us unite as a community, and together we can become the Phoenix that rises from the ashes.”

As it turns out, the love in the air is truly thicker than the smoke.

Heroes of the California Wildfires
A fire sunset sets over Coffey Park in Santa Rosa on Oct. 13, 2017, just days after what’s said to be one of the most destructive wildfires in California history.

Other shout-outs to those who shared with the DOPE team:

  • Katie Brooke Callahan, founder of Belle Fleur Apothecary, animal rescue volunteer at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds Racetrack Stables. Instrumental in connecting DOPE to community heroes for this piece.
  • Diane Curry, Interim Agricultural Commissioner of Mendocino County, organized a list of the permitted cannabis growers and submitted it through the proper channels. Although these attempts were ultimately unsuccessful and cannabis growers did not receive the same consideration to access their properties as the wine grape farmers did, as Curry puts it, “We’re still early in the timeline when cannabis is coming out of prohibition; there will be acceptance by the powers that be, law enforcement and others in the community, that this is a legitimate business now, that cannabis is an accepted agricultural commodity, but we are still fighting four decades of the old stigma associated with cannabis.”
  • Patrick Sellers and Genine Coleman, members of the steering committee of the Mendocino County Growers Alliance, who worked with local government to try to get cannabis growers access to their properties following the fires.
  • Tawnie Logan, Executive Director of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance (SCGA), is dialed in to the heart of the cannabis community in Sonoma County and can attest to the “incredible work done by community members.”
  • Tamara Frey, independent caterer and cultivator, of Redwood Valley who reunited with her cat while DOPE was there; poor Tigre had been missing since the fires almost one month earlier, complete with singed whiskers and clearly very hungry, and Frey was glad to have him back.
  • Colleen Teitgen and Kent Humphrey, owners of Eric Kent Wine Cellars, lived with their two children on Crimson Lane in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa. DOPE met up with them at the remains of their home, where Teitgen searched for her wedding ring in the rubble, something that she left behind when their family had to evacuate their home. They had to abandon their car in gridlock traffic to run away from the firestorm on foot. Despite the incredible loss that this family sustained, Teitgen and Humphrey share that when they told their 13-year-old son that their house burned, his response was, “Well, my [Aikido] Sensei says that ‘out of destruction comes construction,’ so it’s time we start building!”
Heroes of the California Wildfires
Kent Humphrey and Colleen Teitgen have been married since 2002. The couple, along with their two children, moved in to their Santa Rosa home on Crimson Lane in the Coffey Park neighborhood in 2004. In the North Bay Fires that broke out early October, the family was forced to flee their home, leaving everything behind. Two weeks later on Oct. 23, 2017, the couple stands together in front of what used to be the place they call home, unsure of their next step in life.
  • Hezekiah Allen, Executive Director of the California Growers Association (CGA), managed a fires relief fundraising page, earmarked for cannabis growers, that amounted close to $25,000 when YouCaring and their payment processor, WePay, halted their campaign, then canceled and reversed all of the donations. The reason they gave Allen: “Current U.S. federal law prohibits . . . cannabis.”
  • DOPE attended the Cannabis Industry Fire Relief Fundraiser hosted by the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) on November 6, at the end of two days of interviews on the road. NCIA and its partners raised over $50,000 towards relief efforts that evening alone.
  • Joanna Arenstein of East Bay Canna Community partnered with Jim McAlpine and Jennifer Price of the New West Summit conference to fundraise approximately $20,000 in two days.
  • Curtis Nelson’s “Twerkulator” party bus made four runs of bringing donations and supplies from local businesses to shelters and donation hubs in the North Bay.
  • Redwood Credit Union (RCU), in partnership with the RCU Community Fund, Inc., The Press Democrat, and Senator Mike McGuire, created the North Bay Fire Relief fund to assist fire victims and aid relief efforts. One hundred percent of your tax-deductible donations will go directly to support those affected. At time of this writing, over $20 million has been raised so far.

 

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