CAVE JUNCTION -- Flames are consuming a bit more than towering trees and
the occasional cabin as two wildfires roar through the Siskiyou National
Forest. At least some of the vegetation that has made Southwest Oregon
famous -- and long ago took a generation of hippie kids off welfare -- also
is going up in smoke.

Some of the world's highest-grade marijuana, its pedigree sometimes
compared to Cuba's cigars, is grown in the Siskiyou National Forest and the
Kalmiopsis Wilderness, where the Florence and Sour Biscuit fires have
consumed about 183,000 acres of steep forest and rock- studded canyons.

"We're getting reports from some of the firefighters out there of
(marijuana) grows," said Lt. Lee Harman of the Josephine County sheriff's
office. "But," he added with a grin, "we're not gonna put our Marijuana
Eradication Team (ahead) of the firefighters."

It's unclear how much marijuana is burning -- or in danger of burning -- as
the two fires move through the mountains.

But Linda Templin, a crime analyst for the Josephine Interagency Narcotics
Team, or JOINT, said she's 100 percent certain that marijuana -- grown
indoors or inconspicuously in the woods -- is burning.

"We're positive there are plants in that area, and they're being consumed,"
she said. "How many we don't know."

The sheriff's Marijuana Eradication Team, funded by three federal agencies
to seek and destroy marijuana and catch growers on public lands, is
expected to kick into gear this month with surveillance flyovers of
cannabis crops, most of which probably took root last spring. But Lt. Brian
Anderson, who once headed the team, said the fires might have lessened the
team's load.

"The work," he said with a chuckle Wednesday, "has gone up in smoke."

As a rule, federal officials do not allow the eradication team to fly over
the Kalmiopsis Wilderness low enough to spot any marijuana crops. "Of
course, the dopers know that," Anderson said, "so that's where they go to
grow."

Wildfires have pierced the Kalmiopsis, as well as vast acreage in the
Siskiyou National Forest. So with helicopter crews dumping water on the
blazes, it's unlikely the eradication team will be flying there anytime
soon, officials said.

"We'll have to see what restrictions are in place because of this fire,"
Anderson said. "There are other places in Josephine County we can go play."

Late in growing season Anderson said he couldn't begin to guess how the
burning of marijuana plants on federal lands might affect the local
economy. But a few locals familiar with growing cannabis said wildfires
this late in the summer could have a devastating impact on serious growers'
gardens. It's too late in the season, they said, to be ensured of producing
full-size, commercial grade plants from replanted stock.

Marijuana has been a cash crop in the southwestern Oregon county since at
least the mid-1960s. But by 1976, new methods of growing the plants caught
hold in and around the verdant Illinois Valley, once hailed as the Italy of
Oregon for its abundant agriculture.

"It went from a couple hundred dollars a pound to $1,600 a pound," said
Michael Garnier, a Takilma entrepreneur who put down roots in the community
in the late 1960s. A lot of hippie kids suddenly went off welfare, many
eventually investing their fortunes in legal businesses, said Garnier, who
once beat a marijuana rap by pleading his own case dressed as Thomas
Jefferson, complete with a three-cornered hat.

Nowadays, locals say, some of the marijuana grown in the region sells for
as much as $4,000 a pound.

Connoisseur-grade "Some of the best growers in the world are in Oregon,"
said Steven Hager, editor in chief of High Times magazine in New York. "And
many of the seed strains developed in Oregon are now available in
international seed banks in Europe and Canada."

Hager said a wide range of marijuana is grown in southwestern Oregon, where
many growers were forced to migrate after run-ins with police in Northern
California. The high-end crops are connoisseur-grade, he said, and among
the best in the world.

The reason marijuana grows so well in the region might be expressed, in
part, by the slogan on a sign that arches over the main drag in nearby
Grants Pass: "It's the climate."

Marijuana grows well in the area because the days are long and dry, the
dense soil is full of volcanic nutrients and the light patterns are almost
perfect, according to a few locals familiar with growing cannabis. Those
elements make for plants high in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the drug's
active ingredient. Some growers have taken to planting marijuana on
platforms in the trees, said Anderson, which prevents the plants from
becoming snacks for deer and camouflages them from aircraft.

"That's novel," he said.