Fire chars local cannabis landscape

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The Rogue Valley’s cannabis industry took a huge blow from the fast-moving Almeda fire Sept. 8, which wiped out five dispensaries and burned up expensive, uninsurable inventories between (but not in) Medford and Ashland.

In Talent, fire leveled the Talent Health Club and Grateful Meds. In Phoenix, Fireside, Hijinx and Pharm to Table were lost.

The blaze started on the northwest edge of Ashland during extremely hot, dry and windy conditions, and burned up through the Highway 99/Interstate 5 corridor, taking out huge sections of Talent and Phoenix. A few weed farms were singed.

It was Southern Oregon’s greatest catastrophe in living memory, destroying some 2,600 homes, 100 businesses and taking three lives — and prompting many in the industry to rethink their goals and financial capabilities, while trying to get insurance settlements.

Driving up in front of the formerly thriving Talent Health Club, where a writer for Good Herb magazine had done interviews for a story just a few days earlier, visitors gape into the gutted, shell of the ruined dispensary.

Owner Jamin Giersbach says the dispensary, known as THC, will “rise from the ashes” in piecemeal fashion, after he and his wife, Melissa, deal with losing a quarter of a million dollars to the relentless flames of the day-long blaze.

Talent Health Club needs to find a location and deal with seeming resistance of insurers to pay out to cannabis folk, but they expect to rise up and be fully operating by spring 2021, Giersbach says. That includes other operations — soil yard, distribution office and grows.

“It’s not easy. We’ve been in this business since the early days. We are pioneers, but the lawsuits, banking, insurance, lending, dealing with taxes (under persisting federal illegality), all the safety nets have been pulled out. Worst case is all these pitfalls destroy us, and a lot of good people leave the weed industry, then it gets dominated by corporations, and they won’t have good product. It will look like Budweiser.”

The fire put 20 people at THC out of work, but Giersbach plans to rehire them in some part of his operation. Still, he notes, it’s about the climate.

“It’s just crazy. It’s really terrible. If it burns again, am I going to lose another quarter million? We’re all known for being passionate about the industry, and I love this area, but just in the last 12 years, there’s been a lot of big changes in the weather. There used to be more rain in winter, and we’d get four or five good rains in summer. It’s not like that now. But I’m going to stay on task with the dispensary and maybe get more creative in art, music, writing too.”

The cannabis industry of Southern Oregon has done well over its brief years of legitimacy and rebounded immediately to raise money, not just for its members but for the whole community affected by the flames.

Noah Levine of Benson Arbor Farm near Jacksonville spearheaded a campaign with many cannabis entrepreneurs, seeking $125,000 on gofundme — and reaching the goal almost immediately.

“One hundred percent of the donations are being distributed to Oregon families and individuals who have lost their homes to wildfire,” said Levine, whose home was not affected by the fire. He notes there will be an undersupply of product in 2020, as there was in 2019, after the oversupply (and price depression) in 2018.

He said the first $100,000 will be able to support 200 families, with each family receiving $500 for immediate needs, such as clothing and keeping phones on.

When you’ve lost everything and are in chaos, it’s not easy to demonstrate proof of need, says Levine, so a lot of it is handled by referral and showing registration for FEMA aid. Much of the aid, some $30,000, was cash gifts donated offline. Levine kicked in $10,000, as did House of Leaves and Grown Rogue. Rogue River Family Farms donated $5,000.

Obie Strickler, CEO of Grown Rogue, who has two farms and an indoor operation in Medford, says the fire had a “catastrophic impact on the community around us and, secondarily, on the industry, with an outpouring to those who lost homes and are starting to rebuild,” as well as to dispensaries that burned.

The regional industry is helping employees who lost homes, helping the community with rebuilding money, and teaming with United Way, he says, to raise $420,000 (get it? 4-20) to rebuild housing and businesses in a growing plan for long-term recovery.

“The angle of this story is the cannabis industry coming together to support our community, along with wine, pears and the health care industries,” Strickler says. “We were born and raised here. We’ve got children here. Our goal is to help everyone else. This community has allowed us to be successful, so how do we support them in their time of need?”

Ten days into the fundraisers, 500 families with lost homes had come to sign up at House of Leaves, says owner Mike Lisk. “It’s been humbling and very sad,” he says. “Most of them started crying. One hundred percent of our drive with United Way goes straight to fire victims. You don’t have to buy anything.”

The fire started a quarter mile from his Ashland dispensary, so Lisk took off from his Medford shop, but got bogged in traffic for over three hours, watching the smoke and flames come his way.

“It’s a very scary thing. I grew up in Southern California with lots of fire, but I’d never lived through it till now. It’s totally different than watching it on the news.”

Damage to the community and the cannabis industry is astronomical, says Cole Driver, owner of Rogue River Family Farms in Wimer, which donated $5,000 to the gofundme drive for “regular people” who lost homes.

He notes, “I feel wonderful about what we’re doing. I love giving back to the community in any way we can. Cannabis has had a very good year, and it allows us to donate. They help support our business, and we help support them. The industry will do well this year, so we can step up and make more donations.”

Surrounded by a roaring blaze on three sides, Green Valley Wellness on Highway 99 in Talent seemed doomed, but, “We were blessed by the grace of God,” says owner Michael Monarch.

Water bombing helicopters dipped into their farm pond and dumped it right next to their dispensary, he says. Cinder block construction and lots of concrete near the dispensary also helped keep the fire at bay as businesses right across the street burned to the ground.

Powerful winds during the firestorm, with gusts in the 50 to 70 mph range, says Monarch, wind-whipped cannabis plants, especially those over eight feet — and his crew have been giving roots a lot of TLC, to nurse them back to health.

“We’re alive, we’re open and we’re here trying to serve in the recovery and be Talent strong.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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