Click photo to enlarge
Oakland friefighters pull marijuana plants from a home on Angelo Street in Oakland, Calif. after putting out a fire in the attic of the small home due to faulty electical wiring on Monday May 17, 2010. (Laura A. Oda/Staff)

OAKLAND — Buckingham Boulevard residents are hypervigilant about watching out for their neighborhood, quick to report anything suspicious. But a police detective's early morning knock at one neighbor's front door was the first clue that something illegal was happening inside the house across the street. The detective said there would be a raid, and suggested the neighbor might want to leave in case there was gunfire. When the man drove back up the canyon a few hours later, police were still hauling out marijuana plants, bags of buds, money and growing equipment from two expensive, hillside homes that had housed an extensive indoor pot farm.

"These people were growing $1 million worth of pot and I had no clue at all," said the resident, who asked that his name not be used because the ringleader escaped during the police raid and has never been caught. "They had two houses, one to grow the pot and another house where they packaged it for sale. The amazing thing is I talked to the people who lived in the house between the two, and they had no clue."

The luxury enclave in the Oakland hills may seem far removed from a Chinatown fortune cookie factory, a Hayward warehouse, or suburban tract homes in Brentwood or Antioch. But they all have one thing in common: they were used to illegally cultivate potent indoor varieties of marijuana, often right under the noses of their neighbors.

The lucrative and illegal indoor ganja market is growing, fueled by the demand for medical marijuana, experts say, and it's only a matter of time before someone is seriously hurt in a grow-house fire or by armed intruders trying to steal plants that can yield thousands or millions of dollars in sales.

Last month, a grower in Oakland was shot in the leg by two masked men who didn't want to bother cultivating their own weed. He survived, but others have not been as lucky. The same day, less than a quarter-mile away, a smoky fire broke out in a small house brimming with about 400 pungent, bud-rich plants. The next day, a small house fire in Antioch proved to be the undoing for the owner of a 500-plant crop.

Marijuana advocates believe that legalization of the herb will put a dent in the black-market dealers who are causing the biggest risk to public safety.

A statewide measure on the November ballot would, if approved, give cities the right to regulate and tax commercial production and sales of marijuana for recreational use. And Oakland Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Larry Reid will soon introduce an ordinance to regulate marijuana cultivation by licensing a limited number of large commercial growers to supply dispensaries. The growers would be required to obtain a business license and building permit to make sure the operation is up to code. They would have to hire security and, like the dispensaries, pay taxes. Kaplan said the new oversight would clamp down on illegal growers, reduce the fire hazard and put a dent in the criminal element.

But El Cerrito Police Chief Scott Kirkland, a member of the California Police Chiefs Association who has written extensively on the topic and opposes efforts to legalize pot, said there is just too much money and gang activity in illegal cultivation to think that all the growers will melt away or go legit based on a few new laws.

"It's very dangerous, the new push for legalization," he said. "It's naive to think decriminalization will take care of the problem."

Nearly every week in the Bay Area, police or firefighters uncover large indoor crops. There were 28 in Oakland alone in 2009, but unlike certified medical marijuana patients or caregivers who are allowed to grow up to 72 plants each, these busts usually involve several hundred plants. Sometimes the grows are operated by professional crime rings across several cities and multiple homes or warehouses. More often, the indoor grows involve crops grown by individuals trying to cash in on the medical marijuana boom.

Improvements in indoor growing equipment, readily available at local stores, can turn someone with a brown thumb into a weed king, experts say, but it doesn't make a person smart.

"It's interesting, and also alarming from a community safety standpoint," Kirkland said. "It exists everywhere."

Fire: It's in the wiring

Many indoor grows are discovered only after a fire has started, usually sparked by overtaxed electrical systems that are not designed to carry the heavy load of lights, fans and automatic watering systems required for successful indoor cultivation.

Metal halide lamps or high-pressure sodium lights favored for growing have surface temperatures that can reach 1,000 degrees. Add exhaust fans and automatic irrigation systems and you've got a potent recipe for overloading a structure's electrical capacity.

"A lot of times people will set up a grow operation "... and not upgrade the electrical," said Oakland fire investigator Maria Sabatini. "A typical house in Oakland built in the 1940s might have 15-amp circuits. Two or three (grow) lamps will take that up."

All that growing equipment can cause a spike in electrical usage. PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian said the utility cooperates with law enforcement subpoenas or search warrants, but she said employees could be put at risk if they were required to report suspicious activity. She also said there are legitimate reasons why a home's power usage might go up.

Sometimes growers will hire an electrician to upgrade their electrical system to handle the industrial-sized load. But most seem to want to do it themselves, and that can lead to disastrous results. Illegal growers frequently pirate electrical power by hacking into the electrical source before it reaches the PG&E meter and then rerouting the wiring to provide electricity to the grow operation.

That practice creates a hazard for firefighters who think they are shutting off power at the meter only to discover once inside that the structure is still "hot" in more ways than one, Sabatini said.

That's what happened at the Mar Kee Fortune Cookie Factory in Oakland, where 1,000 leafy plants went up in smoke. The growers had accessed an underground PG&E vault under the front sidewalk and ran new power lines up the outside of the building and in through a hole near the roof. They added professional-looking circuitry to handle the demand, but the power pirates apparently didn't do as good a job with the wiring.

"Electrocutions are what worry me the most," Sabatini said. "At the cookie factory, the firefighters didn't have any idea that the system had been modified illegally. They were lucky."

Oakland police Sgt. Barry Donelan, a member of the department's arson and bomb squad, said many firefighters are apprehensive about fighting fires in marijuana grows for that very reason. He estimated that 30 to 40 of the cases he's handled over the past three years involved fires, 20 of which were sent to the district attorney for possible felony prosecution. His cases have a particular combination: illegal cultivation, a fire caused by reckless disregard that creates a threat to public safety, such as illegal wiring, and the fire's cause can't be reasonable.

That last part is straightforward, he said, because it's not reasonable to cultivate large crops of marijuana in a residential house.

"During interviews, they say they have (medical marijuana ID) cards and their grow is legal. But it's still a felony to cause a fire that puts public safety at risk," he said.

Magnets for crime

Overheated wiring is not the only concern for law enforcement. Police officers investigating other crimes or serving search warrants sometimes discover indoor pot crops and weapons the growers use to defend their lucrative operation. There have been several cases where medicinal marijuana clubs or personal pot growers have been robbed, assaulted and even killed:

  • In May, a grower was tied up, beaten and then shot in the leg by two men who invaded his upstairs apartment and tried to force him to give up the key to a large-scale cultivation operation he had set up downstairs in a commercial storefront on San Leandro Street in East Oakland.

  • In December, the owner of a downtown Oakland barber shop was wounded by an armed man who entered his shop. Police officers who arrived at the scene uncovered an indoor crop of pot.

  • In October, a 43-year-old Orinda man was shot four times while guarding his friend's medicinal marijuana crop in North Oakland. The woman who owned the plants told police it wasn't the first time a thief had attempted to steal her crop.

  • In January 2007, an editor for PC World Magazine was shot and killed by one of four masked men who broke into his Pittsburg home to steal marijuana plants.

  • In August 2007, an Oakland man was shot and killed while trying to break into a grow operation on Magnolia Street in West Oakland.

    Innocent neighbors can become victims when crooks get their addresses crossed. Alameda County Chief deputy district attorney Tom Rogers said that six people were recently arrested for breaking into a condo in Oakland because they thought pot was grown there.

    "The residents had only been there a month and they had guns held to their heads," he said. "It was very traumatic."

    Under the radar

    Sometimes those neighbors have their suspicions, but more often than not they are the last to know.

    The sounds of hammering and sawing gave neighbors hope that the small white house on Angelo Street in East Oakland, vacant for months, was being fixed up and rented. They found out what was really going on last month when fire trucks roared up, lights and sirens flashing, just before 7 a.m. One whiff of the thick black smoke billowing down the street told them all they needed to know.

    "We never expected it," said Salvador Mendoza, who lives a couple doors away.

    The Buckingham Boulevard neighbor knows how they feel. The growers on his block were very good at flying under the radar. They were cultivating pot worth millions, but the people who visited the houses did not advertise their wealth with flashy cars and loud parties. They maintained the charade for about a year.

    "I thought maybe they had a home business. "... If they had been driving BMWs or Mercedes, that would have been a tip," said the neighbor.

    But that's not the only reason the illicit grow operation shook him up.

    "The house where they were growing the marijuana was the exact spot where the fire started 19 years ago," he said, referring to the Oct. 20, 1991 conflagration that killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 dwellings, including all the homes on his street. "If that house had gone up, it would have started another fire."

    Contact Cecily Burt at 510-208-6441. Check out her blog at www.ibabuzz.com/westside.