Fire official says illegal marijuana farm could have caused Yosemite inferno

AFP-JIJI

Investigators probing the massive wildfire in Yosemite National Park are looking into whether an illegal marijuana farm may have triggered the blaze, U.S. media reports said Saturday.

As the vast wildfire continued to rage in the iconic Californian tourist destination, several reports quoted a local fire chief who suggested marijuana growers may be to blame. Todd McNeal, a fire chief in Twain Harte, one of the towns affected by the 890-sq.-km inferno, said investigators have not pinpointed the cause of the blaze.

“We don’t know the exact cause,” McNeal told a community meeting. However, he added it is “highly suspect that there might have been some sort of illicit grove, a marijuana grow-type thing.”

“We know it’s human-caused. There was no lightning in the area,” he said.

U.S. Forest Service officials say the cause of the fire remains under investigation.

The San Jose Mercury News reported that authorities in California have faced increasing problems with marijuana farms hidden deep in the region’s rugged wilderness. A 2009 fire that burned 360 sq. km in the Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara was triggered by a campfire at a marijuana farm.

Meanwhile, officials said Saturday they were optimistic of making further gains on the blaze, known as the Rim Fire, but warned that hot, dry conditions continue to create a challenging environment.

“We’re hopeful that we are going to turn the corner, but it’s hot, it’s dry and there is a westerly wind,” Forest Service spokeswoman Leslie Auriemmo said. “There’s a lot of fuel out there. We remain in a high state of alert.”

According to latest figures Saturday, the fire has burned nearly 890 sq. km and continued to threaten 4,500 structures.

A total of 4,995 firefighters have been deployed to battle the flames, which have so far destroyed 11 homes and 97 outbuildings. The fire, which started Aug. 17, was 35 percent contained as of Saturday, up from 32 percent Friday.

Yosemite National Park officials said on Friday that the fire posed no threat to tourists heading to the landmark destination over a busy U.S. holiday weekend. Smoke later reached the heart of the park on Saturday, and officials warned visitors against strenuous activity.

The flames remain some about 25 km from Yosemite Valley, the tourist heart of the park, where millions of visitors flock every year to see majestic scenery such as the Half Dome and El Capitan rock formations.