Oregon Warns Cannabis Operators: Be Prepared for Wildfire Season

Facing a landscape that involves more extreme weather events and wildfires, cannabis businesses need to have a plan to safely maintain business continuity and, if possible, move inventory out of the path of destruction.

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The Oregon Liquor & Cannabis Commission (OLCC) recently warned licensed cannabis operators to be prepared for wildfire season. The alert strongly encourages all licensees to have an evacuation plan and prioritize health and safety in an emergency.

Facing a landscape that involves more extreme weather events and wildfires, cannabis businesses need to have a plan to safely maintain business continuity and, if possible, move inventory out of the path of destruction. 

I recently spoke with Mark Pettinger, the OLCC's director of communications and education about the operators at risk, how they can compliantly transfer products during a disaster, and the most important steps cannabis operators should take to prepare for a potential wildfire.

The OLCC and local cannabis industry have experience with wildfires. Less than three years ago, the Almeda fire roared through Ashland, wreaking havoc on surrounding areas.

In 2019, wildfire ravaged the Illinois and Rogue Valley areas and Douglas County – all heavily timbered, mountainous regions of southern Oregon. The 2019 fires were the basis for the OLCC creating formal guidance on how to respond

"We codified what we were learning in real-time," Pettinger says. "This was based on what was both reasonable and practical, and emphasized that the prevention of loss of life is first and foremost, and the containment and secure storage of cannabis was secondary."

When it comes to securing cannabis during an emergency, it comes down to what's practical and reasonable in the face of imminent danger.

Cannabis Equipment News (CEN): How many operators are threatened by potential wildfires?

Mark Pettinger: As of 11:00 a.m. on August 30, 2023, there are 97 Oregon recreational marijuana licensees under threat of potential wildfires. These numbers have been unchanged since 9:26 a.m. on 8/28/23.  

The state has three evacuation levels

  • Level 1 (Be ready): 84 licensees are currently under a level one threat.
  • Level 2 (Be set): 4 licensees
  • Level 3 (Leave immediately): 1 licensee

Eight licensees are within four kilometers of an evacuation zone.

CEN: Why do operators have to transfer products to another licensee?

MP: Transferring cannabis products to another OLCC cannabis licensee ensures that the controlled product stays tracked in CTS [Oregon's Cannabis Tracking System] and is in a secure environment as required by OLCC rules. Those licensees under evacuation orders are allowed to manifest packages to any other licensed marijuana facility in Oregon. 

They need to contact marijuana@oregon.gov if they create an emergency evacuation manifest that goes to a licensee not allowed under non-emergency circumstances.

CEN: What if licensees cannot identify a colleague who will take the product? 

MP: The next course of action would be to contact the OLCC for guidance. We encourage licensees to begin following the OLCC guidance once they are in an evacuation zone. We encourage licensees to plan and reach out to possible evacuation spots if an evacuation zone is near their area. OLCC staff are currently notifying each licensee within an evacuation zone, or near one, about the evacuations and sending guidance to the licensees. 

Once an evacuation order is lifted, licensees should manifest their inventory back to their facility as soon as reasonably possible. Those under a Level 3 evacuation may understandably take longer to return to their previous location, especially if their facility was damaged. Licensees can contact OLCC with a description of their situation, and our staff will be happy to help them determine a realistic timeline.

CEN: How long do operators have to transfer the products before they are out of compliance? 

MP: We encourage licensees to begin following the OLCC guidance once a level 1 or level 2 evacuation order has been issued. In the event a level 3 is issued, we encourage licensees to immediately leave and contact OLCC as soon as they safely can.  

CEN: When planning for a potential wildfire, what are the most important steps for a cannabis operator to take? 

MP: Licensees should be proactive and have an emergency plan in case of any type of natural disaster. Establishing relationships with other licensees (mutual aid) as reliable sources to transfer product to would be a good first step. 

Then, situational awareness. For example, subscribe to warning and alert messaging services provided by emergency responders and fire management organizations and activate transfer protocols well before "Go Now" warnings come.  

The Oregon Department of Emergency Management has valuable resources for businesses to use when preparing for, surviving and recovering from disasters. Several wildfire apps are available that will provide updated information on fires in your location. 

CEN: Does the state offer any resources to help transfer products? 

MP: No direct resources, but our CTS team is readily available to help facilitate the transfer of product to another licensee.

CEN: How can cannabis operators in Oregon insulate themselves to protect against future extreme weather events and natural disasters?  

MP: Climate change is beyond our scope, but prudent management of water resources is paramount because cannabis is a water-intensive crop. 

Fortunately, the state of Oregon can leverage the ongoing research at the Oregon State University Global Hemp Innovation Center to better understand hemp production (including irrigation). That knowledge can easily be transferred for better resource management of cannabis as a crop.

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