August 22, 2009 – SAN FRANCISCO — Lt. Sonny LeGault and 11 other officers from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department woke before dawn one recent morning, hiked three miles through the woods and just missed the apparently hungry men they had hoped to arrest.Picture 7

“They’d been cooking breakfast: there were a couple of quails dressed out, and a soup going,” Lieutenant LeGault said. “But they were gone.”

Those the officers had been hunting were workers at one of the scores of remote, highly organized outdoor marijuana “grows” that dot the vast forests of California, largely on federal property.

Long a fixture of the nation’s public lands, such criminal agricultural enterprises, law enforcement officials say, have increased greatly in recent years. And they were cast squarely into the limelight this week when the authorities said a 90,000-acre Santa Barbara County wildfire, known as the La Brea fire, had begun with a campfire built by marijuana growers believed to be low-level workers for a Mexican drug cartel.

The fire, which started on Aug. 8, is expected to be fully contained on Saturday. About the only thing that did not burn, Lieutenant LeGault said, were the areas where growers had been watering some 30,000 marijuana plants.

“Ironically, it probably saved their lives,” he said of the growers, who have eluded arrest.

Officials say the rise in the number of such grows has resulted in part from a tightening of the border with Mexico.

“It’s made it much more difficult for the cartels to smuggle into the country, particularly marijuana, which is large and bulky,” said the Santa Barbara County sheriff, Bill Brown. “It’s easier to grow it here.”

California is also popular with marijuana growers for all the reasons that customary farmers like it. “The conditions are very conducive: the water and the soil and the sunshine,” Sheriff Brown said.

According to the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, a multiagency task force managed by the state’s Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, this year is already one for the record books. In more than 425 raids since late June, some 3.4 million plants have been seized, up from 2.9 million all of last year. And, officials note, they still have roughly a month and a half before the campaign expires with the end of harvest season.

Raids occur daily, from southern counties like Riverside, where some 27,000 plants were found on July 2, to northern ones like Lake and Shasta, in each of which more than 400,000 plants have been destroyed by the authorities this year. (Mature plants are usually incinerated, younger ones simply uprooted.)

About 2.7 million plants, nearly 80 percent of the seized crop, have been found on federal, state or other public lands. Officials attribute the plants’ prevalence there to the vast area investigators are expected to cover.

“It’s rugged terrain, very difficult to get to and very difficult to see,” said John Heil, a spokesman for the United States Forest Service, which in California has jurisdiction over 20.6 million acres, home to nearly 60 percent of this year’s seizures.

Mr. Heil said drug operators could be blamed for a handful of wildfires each year in California, which is already dealing with a prolonged drought and budget-stretched firefighting resources. Environmental damage of a different kind can also be severe, with pesticides seeping into soil and streams, and trash and human waste left behind.

Lieutenant LeGault said he was impressed by how far marijuana growers would go — deeper into forests, higher in the mountains — in an effort to avoid detection. “They call it a wilderness because it is,” he said. “Not even the billy goats go there.”

Once established, Lieutenant LeGault said, the workers, usually in teams of 4 to 10, must labor hard to cultivate. Streams and springs are dammed to provide water for irrigation, with miles of irrigation line laid. Plants are laid out under trees to avoid surveillance by law enforcement aircraft, and large areas for planting are sometimes cleared of brush, rocks and so forth by hand.

Living is rudimentary. In the case of the camp that started the La Brea fire, workers seemed to have been sleeping in small dirt beds next to a handmade irrigation pool, with tarps hung overhead.

Then there is the natural world to contend with. Marijuana workers often set traps or diversions for bears, hanging bags of food from far-removed trees. Poison is laid out for rats and other rodents that apparently do not mind the taste of marijuana, which is usually dried and packaged at the camps.

But the biggest danger for growers is law enforcement. Lieutenant LeGault and his fellow officers often land at camps via helicopter, dangling in the air on harnesses and ropes.

Yet arrests are rare. Growers are typically armed, but they most often flee if they hear helicopters overhead or officers hiking toward them. In Santa Barbara County, officials say that in 18 raids, they have netted 225,000 plants but made no arrests.

Lieutenant LeGault said he would love to catch someone, but he understands the odds of running down anyone so deep in the woods.

“It’s like fighting any crime,” he said. “This is just a little more physically challenging.”

By JESSE McKINLEY. Source.