INTER-AGENCY MARIJUANA RAID NETS 15,113 PLANTS
Another in a series of multiagency marijuana raids in Madera County late last week brought this year's plant eradication up to 116,802, an unprecedented season total for the county.
By comparison, last year's total was 54,683.
Sheriff John Anderson, a prominent voice against marijuana growth in the area, continues to call upon the local community. Anderson said the tips his office has received have helped drug enforcers to clear the area.
He adamantly cautions the community to be on the lookout for tale-tell signs, such as isolated campsites and drip-line irrigation, as well as to steer clear of such areas because most growers are armed.
As the season reaches is peak for harvesting and processing, the sheriff cautions that the area is at its most dangerous.
Last week's raid spanned grow sites peppered around North Fork, including Fish Creek, Slide Creek, Douglas Station ( near Peckinpah Ridge ) and Central Camp.
At Peckinpah, six plots were scattered among dense forest and this most recent raid marked the third eradication in the same area this season as brazen growers return and replant.
Agents from the U.S. Forest Service, The Department of Fish and Game, the Sheriff's Department, Madera Regional SWAT team and the Madera County Narcotic Enforcement Team joined the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting ( CAMP )-led force as part of the ongoing "Operation Fatigue" effort to tirelessly drive growers from the area.
Agents, forming two teams, were lowered by helicopter or hiked into areas of dense forest to gardens where 15,113 plants were cut down with machetes and other hand tools and hauled off in bundles by helicopter.
Anderson was among agents who took part in short tactical airborne operations where agents are flown to remote sites harnessed at the end of a rope from a helicopter.
For agents, the eradication is an exhausting and dangerous job in sweltering heat.
The gardens, with plants growing from 5 to 9 feet tall on thick stalks, attract mosquitoes and rattlesnakes because of the moisture from the drip irrigation system rigged by the growers.
"It's exhausting," said Fish and Game Warden Tony Spada of the raids. "You should see these guys collapse at the end of the day."
The demanding physical toll has dropped agents to the ground. Hiking into gardens, sometimes several hours and several miles, in the peak of season's hot weather means heat exhaustion is among the agents' enemies.
When agents took a break for pizza Friday, the toll of the job was visible on the their sweat-stained and red faces.
The heavy reliance on helicopter hauls from remote locations also makes the effort slow and expensive at $500 per hour operating cost for the helicopters alone.
And it also means only a small percentage of gardens are eradicated. "We only find 40 percent of what is out here and the growers count on that," said Kevin Mayer drug agent for the Sierra National Forest Service. "It's the BB-gun approach. Scatter everywhere and we can't get to all of them."
According to Mayer, the number of gardens is increasing at such a rapid rate that an estimated 1,000 square acres are essentially bulldozed in California per year.
"Every year it gets worse," he said, frustrated. He has also seen an increase in new variations of the plant that grow at higher elevations. "I get sick of it. I don't mind when the winter comes" ( which marks the end of the season ).
Despite the exhaustion, teams of committed agents continue to deal a heavy blow to growers with estimated $45 million worth of marijuana eradicated in just two days last week.