DUNLAP — From the air, the marijuana plots jump out, their vivid green a sharp contrast to drought-starved natural foliage of the Sierra foothills.
It's late August and a Fresno County sheriff's task force, often guided by helicopter reconnaissance, is in a race to eradicate the plots before cannabis growers can harvest a multimillion-dollar crop that has markets waiting as far away as the East Coast.
Lt. Patrick Hanson, who heads the force, says his team's main concern is the danger the growing sites hold for nearby residents or anyone else who comes near them. One of the plots targeted this week near Dunlap was a "trespass grow," with marijuana planted on a rugged hillside without the knowledge of the landowner, who only found out about it when his sons stumbled across it while hunting. They were confronted by men who ordered them at gunpoint to leave. No one got hurt, but the memory of Sammy Mercado, killed two years ago when he tried to snatch a few marijuana plants from a plot near Sanger, is on the mind of Hanson and other team members.
"The growers don't appreciate someone trying to steal from them," said Hanson, who worries that the temptation to do so will be strong for other high school-age kids out on a lark.
While deputies shied away from the term "cartel" when describing whoever set up the Dunlap growing operation, they conceded it has the look of professionals. The growers used chain saws to cut down trees and shrubbery, erected a 2-foot-tall chicken wire fence around the plot to keep animals from eating the plants and used hundreds of feet of drip line for an irrigation system. Pesticides bottles, water bottles and other trash left behind indicated that someone was living at the site, probably to guard it. Environmental damage from the clear-cutting of vegetation is a byproduct.
"If we get a year with a lot of rain, this whole area is going to be down on the road," said Sgt. Homer Montalvo, referring to expected erosion.
Hanson likes to stress the mantra of Sheriff Margaret Mims when he talks about the marijuana-growing operations: "It's not about the medicine, it's about the money." He and others in law enforcement take the stance that since Proposition 215 was passed by California voters in 1996 and "compassionate" use of marijuana was permitted in the state, growing operations in Fresno County have metastasized into criminal enterprises with growing markets such as Colorado and Washington state, where they say legalization of the weed has created shortages.
Hanson said that his mother used marijuana tablets when she was diagnosed with lung cancer and he supported her use so that she could keep her appetite. But he stressed the view that the drug is being diverted by criminals at another Squaw Valley site, where deputies arrived to find about 500 plants, some more than 12 feet tall, with only one person living on the property. The lieutenant scoffed at the notion that one person would need such an amount of marijuana and said it was clearly a public safety issue, with the plants clearly visible from the roadway.
"Someone (would) to try to take his plants," he said. "It's the Wild West."
On the surface, it seems futile for someone to grow marijuana in Fresno County, expending so much time, work and money tending plants, only to have them seized by deputies, and also face county fines of $1,000 a plant.
"Personally, I believe that people think we're so overwhelmed that we're not going to get to them," said Montalvo.
Eradication of the growing sites is back-breaking work the deputies cannot farm out to other workers because they are dealing with an illegal drug. It involves chopping down plants with a machete, dragging them into bundles and loading them into trailers for disposal. In rugged terrain, the department's helicopter lifts carries the bundles to waiting trailers. The work is often done in 100-degree heat, with the added danger of guiding a heavy boom dangling from the helicopter to the bundles.
Montalvo smiled when asked if he thought he would be doing heavy field labor when he signed up to be a deputy sheriff. He said consideration was given to having good-behavior prisoners from Fresno County Jail do the work, but the idea of having those convicted of drug charges handing the plants was a nonstarter. Bringing in machinery to rugged terrain isn't feasible either, he added.
"At the end of the day, the easiest way is by hand," he said.