Anthony Skeens, The Triplicate

6,070 plants uprootedas 4 grow operationsare raided in county

It's that time of year for the green thumbs.

The sun beating down on the hills, hoses spitting water in gardens and plants reaching for the sky.

Well, until authorities show up with their machetes.

On Thursday, a 14-person team of Del Norte Sheriff's Office Felony Investigations Unit, Pelican Bay State Prison and U.S. Forest Service officers trudged through heavy brush to five outdoor marijuana grow operations near Gasquet and Hiouchi, pulling up 6,070 plants.

No one was found at the grow operations and no arrests were made.

"Today was the third-largest marijuana eradication in the county," said a Del Norte County sheriff's deputy who asked not to be identified because of his undercover responsibilities.

There were four grow sites located near Gordon Mountain in the Smith River National Recreation Area and a fifth one near Craigs Beach on the South Fork. The team began its mission at sunrise, heading into heavy brush. The officers were each loaded with about 40 pounds of equipment including rifles, ammunition and bullet-proof vests.

By 10 a.m. they were walking trails deep in the hills among marijuana plants just beginning to bud. A pilot in a helicopter overhead circled the gardens, letting the officers know the location of any plants that were missed.

While marijuana growers come in all colors, authorities said Thursday they suspected they were combing a complex of three gardens grown by Hispanic gangs and two by Asian gangs. The race of the growers is typically identified by the foods and wrappers left behind with Spanish or Asian language labels, the deputy said.

The three Hispanic grow sites were probably run by the same people, considering there were footpaths connecting them, said sheriff's Sgt. Steve Morris.

"Gardens like that are typically worked by five or six guys and they go back and forthfrom garden to garden," said Morris.

Marijuana is typically found in rows in Hispanic grows after trees and brush are cleared out on hillsides, the deputy said.

"The Hispanics don't really make an attempt to hide it from the air," he said. "Traditionally, the grows have been similar over the years."

Dozens of holes are dug in lines and a handful of seeds - male and female - are thrown into each one, the deputy said.

"They have to get rid of the boys or the girl plants won't bud," he said.

Hispanic growers usually live in the gardens full time, leaving their waste and trash strewn on the ground.

Their gardens are also typically bigger than the Asian grows, the deputy said.

They dam up a spring or creek flowing the water through pvc pipes to the garden sites, he said.

The Asian grows tend to more sporadic, he said.

"We've seen over the last four or five year an increasing amount of Asian organized crime-type grows," he said, citing a spike in Humboldt, Curry, Josephine, Siskiyou, Trinity and Del Norte counties.

Their plants are usually grown indoor until about they're 8 inches tall, then transplanted into the hills of public lands, he said.

The gardens are hidden among the trees and brush and irrigated by a more sophisticated system, he said.

Pipes run from a water source to a large drum that fills and disperses water to a network of pipes that run through the garden, he said. Holes are cut into the pipes and timers dictate when water spews through small spitter nozzles, he said.

The growers don't typically live at the gardens, buttheir trash and waste are usually stored in tubs, he said.

Still, all marijuana growers aredesecrating the land and disturbing the ecologyaround the sites, he said.

One of the gardens where authorities were hoping to make an arresthad been abandoned for about a week, with indications that the growers dried up a water source, Morris said.

And entering both types gardens is dangerous because of the possibility of encountering armed growers.

The officers hadn't encountered anyone at the three sites they entered by noon, so they chopped down the plants and called for the helicopterstationed at a landing zone eight miles up French Hill Road to pick them up.

The dense forest doesn't offer a place for the helicopter to land, so a long rope was attached to the helicopter for two officers to hook onto for transport back to the landing zone.

The officers dangled while the helicopter zipped along at speeds of up to 105 mph. At those speeds, the eyelids and cheeks begin to ripple, goggles and helmets threaten to fly off and drool streams out of mouths. It's a wild ride, but saves the officers time and energy to continue through the day, said sheriff's Deputy Tim Wiley.

"I was too scared to look up," said one of the officers after landing. "I didn't want to know how far the helicopter was in front of me."

"You guys were parallel," replied another officer, chuckling.

The team members mobilized in their convoy of trucks, SUVs and a fueling tank for the helicopter as they went to another landing zone close to the fourth grow near Gordon Mountain.

The site turned up more marijuana, but again no growers.

Off the team went to the third and final landing zone near Craigs Beach, where swimmers in the Smith River waved to the hanging officers as they were transported to a ridgeline.

The danger of short hauling - being deliveredby helicopter - is that there are two officers dropping into a garden wherearmed growers who may want to protect their crop potentially await, Wiley said.

There has been no violent resistance from growers caught in Del Norte County to date, but every year there are reported shootouts elsewhere, he said.

The Craigs Beach site was another Asian grow, and it sparked some concern, authorities said. Wiley's voice came over the radio to officers at the landing zone reporting thin wires surrounding the garden - possibly booby traps.

Upon further inspection, it was fishing line with bells hanging from it to act as an early warning system.

There were other wires pulling trees together to provide camouflage for the garden, Wiley said.

The garden had about 300 marijuana plants still in pots. The anonymous deputy was baffled at the thought that anyone would take that many plants through dense brush, up a hill onto a narrow ridgeline.

"The time I've been working with the Sheriff's Office I've done more than 100 eradications," he said. "Only a couple have had potted plants."

The plants were destroyed and all the officers were short-hauled back to the landing zone. It was about 5 p.m., marking 12 hours of pushing through bushes with the inland sun beating down on the officers.

Some of them weren't even getting paid - the Pelican Bay officers volunteered for the operation.

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