Houses used for growing pot are more likely to catch fire – doc.

Friday, March 11th, 2005

Bypasses installed to hide large amounts of power being used

Chad Skelton


CREDIT: Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun

The remains of a burned house in Surrey used for a pot-growing operation.


A house containing a marijuana-growing operation is 24 times more likely to catch fire than a normal home, according to a new study.

Police and firefighters have long complained about the fire risks posed by growing operations, many of which use electrical bypasses to conceal the massive amount of electricity they’re using.

But the precise risk posed by such operations has never been known. As part of its massive study of B.C.’s marijuana trade, researchers at the University College of the Fraser Valley reviewed the official incident reports for every fire at a single-family dwelling in Surrey from 1997 to 2003.

They found that, during that period, fires at growing operations accounted for 4.7 per cent of all house fires in Surrey — reaching a high of 8.7 per cent in 2003.

Based on projections about the total number of growing operations in Surrey, the researchers estimated that one in 22 growing operations caught fire during the study period — a rate 24 times higher than for the city as a whole.

Growing-operation fires also caused more devastation — with the average such fire resulting in twice as much damage ($59,307) as a normal house fire ($31,282).

Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis said that is partly because buildings with growing operations are often unoccupied, meaning the fire isn’t reported until a neighbour notices it.

Garis said growing operations are more likely to catch fire because the use of electrical bypasses and makeshift wiring increases the chance of wires overheating.

And growing-operation fires also pose a greater risk to firefighters, he said.

In a normal home, if an appliance catches fire, a tripping mechanism usually stops the flow of electricity into the house. But in growing operations with electrical bypasses, that tripping mechanism has been disabled — meaning electricity is often still coursing into the home when firefighters arrive.

The situation is made even more dangerous by firefighters using water to douse the fire.

“There’s a risk of electrocution for the firefighters and entrapment in these wiring mechanisms,” said Garis. “Our firefighters have been shocked from time to time.”

None of Surrey‘s firefighters have been seriously injured or killed from an electric shock, said Garis, but he fears it’s just a matter of time. “It’s a question of not if, but when, is somebody going to be hurt,” he said. And electric shocks are just one of a host of hazards firefighters confront in a growing operation.

“Everything from booby traps to weapons on site to propane — things you don’t [normally] find in a residential setting,” said Garis.

Growing-operation fires have become such a problem in Surrey that the department has had to alter some of its training policies.

“Typically, we like to fight fires offensively, meaning get into the building and extinguish it as close to the area of origin as we can,” said Garis.

However, the risks posed by growing operations means that strategy can put lives at risk — so firefighters are given more latitude in fighting such fires.

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

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