LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Wildfire investigators in California are looking for marijuana growers tied to a Mexican drug cartel whom they suspect ignited a blaze that has charred more than 87,000 acres of a national forest.
The La Brea Fire, which erupted August 8 in the Los Padres National Forest in the remote Santa Barbara County mountains northwest of Los Angeles, is believed to be the first major wildfire in the state caused by drug traffickers, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jim Turner said on Monday.
A joint statement issued Saturday night by the Santa Barbara County sheriff’s office and the Forest Service said the blaze was sparked by a “cooking fire in a marijuana drug trafficking operation ... believed to be run by a Mexican national drug organization.”
“Although the La Brea Fire started more than one week ago, there is evidence that the unburned marijuana garden area has been occupied within the last several days,” the statement said.
Sheriff’s spokesman Drew Sugars said investigators found tens of thousands of marijuana plants growing in the area. No arrests have been made, he said.
Authorities said firefighters were warned the growers were likely still in the area and trying to escape on foot.
“The suspects are still at large,” Turner said. “We’ve closed the area to the public ... so if anyone is likely to encounter them, it would be the firefighters, and of course those people have all been alerted and are on the watch.”
Illegal cultivation of marijuana in California’s forest lands has been a significant problem for several years, prompting federal and local agencies to step up eradication efforts, Turner said.
He added that some but not necessarily all the marijuana gardens had been connected to the Mexican cartels.
The fire, which is about 75 percent contained, was the largest of several wildfires burning in the state in recent days, including one near the northern surfing town of Santa Cruz, which forced the evacuation of more than 2,000 people.
Editing by Paul Simao