Cannabis and the serious fire hazards

  • Figures released by London Fire Brigade show there were 12 cannabis factory fires in the capital in the first four months of 2019 alone – approaching the total for the whole of 2018
  • Many of these fires are in residential premises, posing a serious threat to those living nearby, but fires in cannabis factories in commercial premises are also becoming more prevalent
  • Paul Redington, regional property major loss manager at Zurich, discusses the associated fire risks in a recent article with RICS.

Original article by Paul Redington, regional property major loss manager at Zurich Insurance, featured in RICS June/July 2020 Journal. To see the initial story, please click here.

In the UK, statistics from the Home Office show that more than a third of a million cannabis plants were seized in 2018. The West Midlands alone saw 67,776 plants confiscated, an increase of almost 40 per cent on the year before. That same year the Metropolitan Police revealed that one cannabis farm was found every couple of days in London.

While 2019 figures are awaited, the UK emergency services have been attending cannabis-related fires since at least the 1970s. But as cultivation increases, so does the number of fires related to illegal factories or farms.

Figures released by London Fire Brigade show there were 12 cannabis factory fires in the capital in the first four months of 2019 alone – approaching the total for the whole of 2018. Many of these fires are in residential premises, posing a serious threat to those living nearby, but fires in cannabis factories in commercial premises are also becoming more prevalent. What’s behind these increases?

First, the demand for cannabis itself appears to be increasing. With a greater focus on medicinal use, some well-known high-street retailers are selling legal products based on cannabis oil – in fact, the UK is the world’s largest producer and exporter of legally cultivated cannabis. With demand on the rise, and coming from a wider customer base than before, a ready market has also been created for illicit production and distribution.

Second, this market means large-scale illegal cannabis production is big business for those involved. There is good evidence that many factories are part of established criminal networks, with many thousands of people involved in the supply chain of this lucrative trade.

Third, much more information about cultivation is now available, and the equipment to start even a small factory is quite easily obtained via the internet.

Common causes of fire

A large warehouse blaze in Tottenham in May 2019, believed to have started in one unit that was being used to produce the drug. The fire burnt for more than 24 hours and took 100 firefighters to extinguish. Zurich insures one of the neighbouring units, with the resultant claim by the innocent customer costing more than £1m.

Where a fire does occur, it is often due to the temporary lighting and heating equipment that has been rigged up in the premises. High-powered industrial lamps are often used, and they produce significant heat – with all the associated risks. In turn, any electrically-powered ventilation system that may be required creates additional hazard if not installed properly. Finally, all this set-up requires considerable energy and, in turn, cabling. Most of this is poorly installed, and subject to potential short circuits and resistive heating faults that can easily cause wiring or any combustible materials around it to ignite.

Vacant premises are also an issue. In some cases they have been broken into and used as cannabis farms without the knowledge of the owner. Once established, the farms themselves are then left largely unattended, meaning any fire that may develop is not dealt with until it takes hold. Fires are often only spotted by neighbours or passers-by, increasing the level of damage to the premises itself and the threat to adjacent buildings. It is therefore vital that empty premises are properly secured and visited regularly, with careful internal inspections where possible, as external inspection alone may give no indication as to what is going on inside.

The risks associated with illicit cannabis farms are clear, with fire being the most obvious hazard. It is a problem that shows no signs of abating. Those who own and manage property need to take appropriate steps to avoid becoming a victim of something that is a growing issue for both them and their insurers.

To find out more, speak to your usual Zurich contact.