EXCLUSIVE: Investigators look into whether drug operation sparked Loma Fire

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Thursday, September 29, 2016
Investigators look into whether drug operation sparked Loma Fire
ABC7 News has exclusive new information that investigators are looking into whether an illegal drug operation may have been the source of the Loma Fire.

LOS GATOS, Calif. (KGO) -- Since Monday afternoon, the Loma Fire in Santa Clara County has burned more than 2,000 acres, destroyed at least one home, and forced people to evacuate. It started not far from Morgan Hill, near the summit of Loma Prieta.

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The I-Team has been investigating marijuana grows on that same mountain for the past month. The I-Team investigation started in August when neighbors on that mountain complained they felt under siege by what they suspected are illegal marijuana grows. They were also concerned about the possible fire danger presented by those operations.

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Vintage cars line a property after the Loma fire burned through Loma Chiquita Road near Morgan Hill, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016.
AP Photo/Noah Berger

UPS driver Carlos Canche had to cut his route short Monday when he came upon the Loma Fire, just getting started. He took out his cellphone and posted pictures on Facebook.

"I was in awe and shock more than anything, because I had never seen anything like that from myself, from my first person view," Canche said.

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Canche watched the first Cal Fire helicopter on the scene dipped low and land.

A source with knowledge of the Cal Fire investigation, now underway, took Canche's video and believes he identified the probable ignition point, where the fire may have started, in an area near Loma Chiquita Road in Los Gatos.

That's one of the spots neighbors claimed was an illegal marijuana grow operation, when they came to the I-Team last month complaining about strangers and gunfire on the mountain.

"They are heavily armed, there's been shootings in the past," said former DEA special agent Keith Barna.

Barna said he worked busts on the mountain, and that investigators will be looking for certain types of evidence once the fire goes out.

"Vehicle license plates if they're able to get any in the area, they're going to try and identify chemical containers that are left over there that may not have been burned," Barna said.

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Sources close to the Cal Fire investigation say they are concentrating on that spot and that it appears to contain a legal marijuana grow, a suspected illegal pot farm, and a possible meth lab. And they are curious about loud pops heard on Canche's video.

Canche thought it was the sound of trees exploding in the fire.

"And I thought, well that kind of makes sense because when you put a piece of log on the fire on a campfire, you hear a popping. Imagine a whole tree just exploding with that heat," he said.

"It certainly could be some type of ammunition blowing up," Barna said.

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Sources tell the I-Team, investigators are checking out whether the sounds were butane canisters exploding. Butane is used in the highly-flammable process of making hash oil.

Cal Fire says, while they fight the blaze, the investigation into how it started is underway.

"That can take up to you know weeks, months, possibly years to pinpoint that," said Loma Fire spokesperson Jonathan Cox.

The I-Team had a tough time reaching the current owner of the property -- it's an LLC with no person's name attached. The previous owner who sold it last year said there was no drug operation there when he had it. A sheriff's deputy who worked Monday night said he saw several growers leaving the area in tears, upset about their crops going up in flames.

Click here for full coverage on the Loma Fire.