SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Nate Trujillo sat on a windy ridge and watched California's largest wildfire, the August Complex, work its way toward the cannabis-growing enclave of Post Mountain-Trinity Pines, where many of the locals are refusing to evacuate.
Law enforcement officers went door to door warning of the danger a few days ago, but "we couldn't force people to leave," said Trujillo, a narcotics deputy in the Trinity County Sheriff's Department. "It's mainly growers. And a lot of them, they don't want to leave because that is their livelihood."
It is a critical time of year in the Emerald Triangle, a three-county corner of Northern California that by some estimates is the nation's largest cannabis-producing region.
Trinity Pines alone is home to up to 40 legal farms, with more than 10 times that number of illegal grows hidden off its dirt roads, according to people familiar with this part of the Trinity Alps region, inland from Humboldt.
Each farm has crops worth half a million dollars or more, and many are within days or weeks of harvest, making growers wary of leaving their crop vulnerable to either flames or thieves. Among the holdouts are numerous Hmong families, originally from Laos and other Southeast Asian countries, who have moved to the area in recent years, along with Bulgarians and Russians and a smattering of neighbors drawn by the remote beauty of towering cedars and firs.
One estimate put the value of the legal crop alone at about $20 million.
"There (are) millions of dollars, millions and millions of dollars of marijuana out there," Trujillo said. "Some of those plants are 16 feet tall and they are all in the budding stages of growth right now."
As of Thursday, authorities and locals estimated that as many as 1,000 people remained in Post Mountain and Trinity Pines, communities where gunfire is common. Not long ago, nightfall brought what locals dubbed the "roll call," in which cannabis cultivators, one after another, shot rounds from pistols and automatic weapons as a warning that outsiders should beware, said Post Mountain volunteer Fire Chief Astrid Dobo, who also manages legal cannabis farms.
Though bullets can't stop the current threat to the crops, locals are steadfast in their determination to defend what they have. That includes residents with no ties to the cannabis trade.
Susan Bower has lived in Post Mountain since 1973 and stayed through multiple fires. Thursday, she remained at home and will leave only when "it's actually burning the trees and grass on the other side of our garden fence," she said. She and her husband have planned "an emergency way out if the forest is on fire" and have accepted that such blazes are "part of the regime" for living in wildlands.