MONTEREY COUNTY, Calif., Aug. 19 (UPI) -- Crews fighting a raging wildfire in central California have come away from the blaze with perhaps more than they expected to find -- illegal marijuana operations in the Los Padres National Forest.
The Monterey County Sheriff's Office has so far seized nearly 20,000 marijuana plants from the forest, officials said, after firefighters trying to extinguish flames in the area repeatedly encountered suspicious persons.
Some fire crews reported to authorities that they were unable to enter some fire areas after meeting resistance from armed individuals. Investigators say they believe the armed men were trying to keep their marijuana grows secret, even as the Soberanes Fire roared around them.
The blaze has been burning since July 22 and has destroyed more than 80,000 acres in Carmel Valley, Cachagua and Big Sur. Nearly 60 homes have been torched and the blaze is about 60 percent contained, officials said. The U.S. Forest Service has taken over command control of the fire.
According to officials, 17,300 plants and 1,125 pounds of processed pot have so far been seized.
Law enforcement agents were finally able to uncover and eradicate the secret grows when the people protecting them in the forest were forced to flee due to the growing fire. Some came out of the forest claiming to be hikers, officials said.
"The stuff in the national forest have been kind of big because of the fire, and people are hearing about the 'hikers' that are coming out that we rescued when in fact, they are tenders of marijuana grows," Monterey County Cmdr. John Thornburg said.
Authorities also expressed concern about the potential for additional risk for the hundreds of firefighters battling the stubborn fire.
"If it is potentially big cartels, they may have a retaliation against our firefighters, who are here to help," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Joseph English said.
Officials expect the fire, which was started by an illegal campfire, to be fully contained by Sept. 30.
Several state and federal agencies are involved in fighting the fire and rounding up the illegal marijuana -- including Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Justice.
The Soberanes Fire is one of several large fires burning across California. Nearly 10,000 firefighters are working to extinguish them, officials said.