A team of smoke jumpers fighting fires in the Applegate unknowingly dropped into a 1,500-plant marijuana garden this week, sheriff's officials said.
The locally-based smoke jumpers parachuted into the garden as they were searching for lightning-sparked fires, Jackson County sheriff's spokeswoman Andrea Carlson said.
The firefighters contacted law enforcement, who pulled the plants from the site on Tuesday, Carlson said.
"They had no idea they were dropping into a marijuana garden," Carlson said.
The sheriff's department said it is unusual to find a large marijuana garden this early in the year.
People usually stumble into the gardens in the late summer or early fall.
Most of the plants were small and growing inside plastic pots.
"They were in starter kits, so to speak," Carlson said.
The grow site was littered with hills of garbage, much of it harmful chemicals that can pollute soil and streams in the area, officials said.
At least two people were believed to be camping at the garden, keeping armed watch over the plants as they grew over the summer, Carlson said.
"These plants were going to be harvested in late summer or early fall," Carlson said.
The amount of garbage was disturbing, though not surprising considering what deputies have seen piled up at previous gardens found in the forest, she said.
"If you consider at least two people were eating two meals a day and then throwing the food containers away, and that it takes a lot of chemicals and fertilizers to start these grows, that's a lot of trash," Carlson said. "It's very bad for the environment of our forests."
The sheriff's department is putting together a group of volunteers who will hike into the garden to haul out the trash in the coming weeks, Carlson said.
"We won't just let it sit out there," Carlson said.
There were 1,509 plants at the site, along with hundreds of additional holes dug for future planting. Authorities also found two long guns and other evidence that suggested the garden was part of a Mexican cartel operation, Carlson said. She declined to elaborate, citing the ongoing investigation.
Those recreating on federal lands should be aware of the dangers of coming across possible grow sites, officials say. Telltale signs are PVC piping or black poly-pipe, bags of fertilizer, large quantities of trash and camp sites. Those who come across such sites should leave immediately the way they came in, police say. If possible, take note of the location on a GPS and make a waypoint but do not linger or investigate further. Upon returning home, call the local sheriff's department and provide accurate road descriptions and drainage or creek names.
"Anything that doesn't add up to the way the woods should look should give you a clue that you're in a marijuana grow," Carlson said. "Just head back the way you came and immediately call law enforcement."
Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.