TACOMA — As Washingtonians embrace the state’s new law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, police and fire agencies are bracing for a new problem: catastrophic fires sparked by people trying to extract oil from their weed.
Authorities say there have been at least two such fires in Pierce County this year, and they expect more as increasing numbers of people get their hands on marijuana.
“I’m very nervous about them,” said Jason Brooks, a Tacoma police detective who specializes in arson cases.
Brooks and Tacoma deputy fire marshal Sue Boczar say backroom methods of extracting hash oil endanger the people who make it, their neighbors, and firefighters and police sent to respond when a fire breaks out.
And they’re not the only ones.
The Office of the State Fire Marshal in New Jersey issued a safety alert in January warning authorities in that state of “a marked increase” in calls for service related to “improvised hash oil preparation.”
“Since this process involves the use of flammable and potentially explosive materials, especially butane, the hazard of fire and/or explosion is great,” according to the safety alert. “This is compounded by the fact that extraction is usually done indoors to avoid detection.”
Such were the circumstances of two fires this year in Pierce County, one of which injured two people and led to criminal charges.
A Tacoma house burned in January after propane someone was using to extract oil from marijuana caught fire, Boczar said. Two people were hurt in Lakewood in February when an explosion rocked their apartment. Police said they found a marijuana grow inside the apartment and evidence that two people were extracting oil from the cannabis.
Those people were hurt and later charged with unlawful manufacture of a controlled substance and reckless burning. They pleaded not guilty earlier this month and await trial.
Boczar said she’s heard of other cases in Pierce County.
Some cannabis users like to extract the oils from their marijuana because the process concentrates the content of THC — the active ingredient that leads to a high — and transforms it into a form that can be used as an ingredient in candies, baked goods and other products.
“They always want to make their candies,” Boczar said. “That way they don’t have to smoke it, and it makes it easier to hide its use.”
A common method of making hash oil is to pack ground marijuana into a tube of some kind - many home cooks use PVC pipe capped at both ends - and then add a volatile solvent of some kind to the tube to extract the oil. Some cooks use butane or ethanol, authorities say.
“The resin collects at the bottom of the extractor, which is usually lined with a coffee filter or other suitable screen, then removed and heated to evaporate the remaining solvent and ‘purify’ the end product,” according to the safety alert issued by New Jersey authorities.
The process is extremely dangerous, authorities say. The solvents used are highly flammable, and vapors can quickly build up in a confined space. What’s more, cooks are creating what amounts to an explosive device when they cram a flammable solvent into a tube.
“You’re just making a pipe bomb,” Boczar said.
A spark from a cigarette lighter or other ignition source could create an explosion.
That’s what investigators think happened in Lakewood in February, court records show.
One of the defendants told authorities he and his girlfriend “had finished extracting the hash oil when a sudden flash of extreme heat and light consumed the apartment with a whooshing sound,” the records show. The man said “there was fire all over the apartment,” the records state.
“Police went to the apartment and observed that the outer wall had been pushed outside by about six inches,” the records show. “The interior ceiling seemed to be pushed upward several inches as well. The carpet was burned, and several plastic (items) had melted due to extreme heat.”
Police found several small butane cans scattered around the apartment.
The fire in Tacoma scorched the rear of a home on the East Side. Boczar said she found hundreds of small propane canisters - the kind used by campers to fuel their cook stoves - in the house.
And therein lies the problem for first-responders dispatched to such incidents, Brooks and Boczar said. Such canisters contain flammable gases stored under pressure and can explode in a fire.
“The amount of butane they use is ridiculous,” Brooks said. “When a can fails, now you’ve got an explosive device.”
Brooks has taught two courses this year designed to educate Pierce County first-responders to the dangers of fighting and investigating hash-oil fires.
Boczar said she welcomes the knowledge, the crux of which is, “Don’t just go barreling in.”
“I’m sure they’re going to go on the rise,” she said.