At 1:30 a.m. on October 8th, Jennifer Michaels was awake in bed in her Sonoma County home. She had two important meetings the next day, and while she noticed a strange glow out the window, she was mostly thinking about the appointments with seed companies she had the next morning.
"I had no idea at the time what was even going on," she recounted six months after a devastating fire swept through the Sonoma Valley. "I just smelled the campfire smell that had come into the house, so I wasn't even aware that there was a huge fire blazing throughout the county."
After noticing the strange glow and the campfire smell, she and her husband decided to leave immediately with their two chickens. It wasn’t until they drove down the mountain, that they realized that their whole town was on fire.
One of the few things that they were able to rescue was their entire seed bank of local and global strains that, serendipitously, had been inside her home while she made little seed packets.
The fire didn’t take over her property until a week later, but when it did, it took everything: her nursery, her crops, her line of cannabis massage oils, and even her THC-infused wines that she’d made with her own 'Merlot Kush' cannabis strain.
"It was surreal. I realize now that I was in shock," she said. "I actually physically saw the house still on fire as I drove up, thinking, 'Oh, maybe I'll harvest a couple buds or something.'"
Six months later, she’s still trying to put her life, and her business, back together.
"There’s so many things that change."
When the wildfires ripped across California in October 2017, it was devastating for all industries, but the cannabis community was hit especially hard.
According to the Washington Post, at least 34 cannabis growers suffered extensive damage to their farms. In Sonoma County alone, there are between 3,000 and 9,000 growers producing millions of dollars worth of product annually.
Because the farming of cannabis is still federally illegal, insurance isn’t available for growers. When entire fields burned up right in the middle of harvest season, growers had no recourse.
Even if their fields weren’t consumed by the flames, the smoke and ash from the fire still tainted the plants and lowered their value.
Michaels had already sold everything she was harvesting to a distributor, so when it burned, she didn’t have very many options. Plus, with the market changing so quickly, it wasn’t like she could just get back to what she was doing, even if she did have the funds.
"It's not like, 'Oh, my pizza place burned down and I'm going to build another one, I'm going to do the same thing,'" she said. "I don't know if you ever do the same thing, there's so many things that change in the industry."
Michaels was left not just crop-less but also homeless. In the weeks that followed, she applied for, and was granted emergency funds from FEMA to find a new place to live, and she set about the slow process of starting over.
"You are so powerless."
The fires also ravaged parts of Mendocino County, where the majority of California’s cannabis is grown.
Many growers there weren’t directly affected by the fires, but felt helpless as the neighbors all around them watched their livelihood go up in flames.
Jenna Meister is the Brand Manager of Henry’s Original, a collection of five family farms in Mendocino producing organically grown cannabis products. Two of their five farms were evacuated, but luckily, none of them were affected.
"Fires are hard because you are so powerless to do anything," she said, "and you're concerned for your neighbors, for everyone else in the vicinity."
"There's this indescribable sense of compassion for people who are displaced, who lose everything. I mean, people died in the fire. It was really a difficult time for the community in Northern California."
David Silverstone, who runs the off-the-grid cannabis company Silver Dragon Farms, was stuck in a similar situation.
"It's definitely shocking, awe-inspiring, every emotion you can imagine, you have them," he said. "Because it's potentially your life changing drastically at any moment."
The fire stopped just short of his own property, but he was ready with a fire protection system and an exit plan, just in case.
"It just completely wiped through the entire valley below," he said. "All the homes, all my neighbors, all my friends. So, it was pretty devastating for everybody, and it still is because there's so much change here all at once."
Rebuilding a community
When Meister realized that their farms had been spared, she immediately jumped into action mode, wondering how to help both the cannabis community, and the area in general, bounce back.
At the beginning of April, Henry’s Original launched a partnership with the Oregon based non-profit One Tree Planted. Every profit made from their Manzanita strain sales would go towards replanting sugar pines in the Lake Tahoe area.
"We always knew that we wanted to be able to do something," she said. "And we kind of did whatever we could for people in the area right after, but we wanted to keep an eye on the long-term."
"I don't know if reforestation is the right word, but we wanted to just kind of rebuild the ecosystem in California."
She says it’s been inspiring to see the community come together in Mendocino. From fundraisers to house concerts, everybody has been brought together a little more than they were before.
Michaels says the cannabis community wasn’t great at coming together before, but once she reached out and started looking for help, she was offered opportunities and assistance she wasn't expecting.
Now, she and her husband are still kind of figuring things out. They're working on partnering with other companies to continue to work on their genetics brand, but there is no hope of regrowing this year.
"I don’t have a happy success story as of yet," she said. "But it’s possible."