Earlier this month, as the San Francisco Fire Department worked to put out a fire at a house on the 200 block of Ortega Street in the Inner Sunset, the battalion chief approached a police officer on the scene and encouraged him to look inside. After the fire had been extinguished, three officers entered the house. Weed plants were everywhere. Fire officials then alerted PG&E, whose worker quickly discovered that somebody had "jumped the box" — meaning the electric meter had been circumvented to avoid large utility bills. (This is a pretty standard move for a growhouse.)
None of this was all that surprising to the authorities. There are growhouses all over the city, and quite a few of them wind up catching fire every year, according to Mindy Talmadge, the fire department's public information officer. "In the recent past that I can think just off the top of my head, there have been about three," she said.
Last month, a Bayview warehouse went up in flames, and officers discovered 860 pot plants basking under heat lamps next door. They also found an illegal converter box. Back in May in San Diego, another house containing 300 marijuana plants caught fire. Sure enough, the man who lived there had also been bypassing the electric meter.
"Messing around with the wiring obviously creates a hazard," Talmadge said. She added that the lights used to help the plants grow are incredibly hot and that usually nobody keeps watch over the plants, which are often stored in warehouses, attics, or, as in the case of the Ortega Street operation, vacant homes in residential areas.
When asked to give some advice for marijuana cultivators on how to avoid getting their weed smoked too early, she laughed. "Don't do it," she said. "How's that?"