Mike Ray raced down California Highway 26 toward a mountainside engulfed in flames.
The pot entrepreneur had been at an event in San Francisco when he got an urgent call from his brother. The Butte wildfire spread to Jesus Maria Road and was inching closer to their family farm and the 99 plants that helped supply his medical marijuana company, Bloom Farms.
Ash fell like snowflakes, gathering in clumps under the cargo van’s windshield wipers. Mike’s phone buzzed to life with texts from his siblings, but he couldn’t bear to read the updates.
By the time he arrived, Mike’s parents had abandoned the property under a mandatory evacuation order. The power went out the day before. Some changes of clothes and the dogs were all they had time to grab.
Mike met the family in the nearby town of San Andreas under a moonless sky. Flames as tall as buildings claimed hundred-year-old pine trees in the distance. The air was so thick with smoke, “it hurt your lungs,” Mike said.
The 36-year-old wasn’t ready to give up.
“My brother and I were very anxious to see what was going on,” Mike told Tech Insider. “We got into his truck and drove back up to the property, being very cautious.”
The brothers managed to talk their way past several law enforcement checkpoints, explaining the situation. Eventually, just a mile outside the property, they bumped into a California Highway Patrol officer who refused to let them go further for their own protection.
“He was like, ‘The fire’s right over there,'” Mike remembered. “‘This is it.'”
The brothers parked a few miles up the road from the farm, where they could take in the view from across a canyon.
“At that point, it had not burned. We sat there for a couple hours,” Mike said. “Around midnight, we saw the fire come over the crest. We pretty much knew it was going to go up.”
Mike and Adam Ray watched their childhood home, everything it contained, and the cannabis burn in a cloud of smoke.
California’s farmers have been hit hard, and the burgeoning legal marijuana industry — which saw $5.4 billion in sales in 2015, and is expected to grow 25% this year — is suffering as much as anyone. The International Business Times reported hundreds of California pot farms were destroyed, with financial losses in the millions.
Mike guesses most pot farms in the region, like his, were uninsured. Most insurance companies don’t know how to value cannabis’ worth, and those that do offer risk protection for growers make it expensive to do so, he added.
“There’s a common misconception that cannabis growers are all rolling in cash. The reality is, you don’t meet a lot of wealthy cultivators … who wear gold chains and drive Ferraris,” Mike said. “They live a respectable life. They get by.”