On Sept. 29 at 1:25 p.m., the Santa Cruz Fire and Police Departments rushed to an apartment building ravaged by fire in the 700 block of Third Street. Three severely burned male victims were rescued and transported to a trauma center in the area by helicopter.

“The scene was just shocking,” said Santa Cruz deputy chief of police Steven Clark. “When you see something like that it reminds you how dangerous and volatile a situation like this is.”

The fire and response persisted for a few hours.

“There were three battalion chiefs, 27 firefighters as well as American Medical Response for the treatment of the victims,” said Santa Cruz fire chief Jeff Trapp.

The three victims, ages 23, 23 and 25, were involved in the production of butane hash oil from marijuana, or “honey oil,” at the time of the blast, as reported by the police from the ongoing investigation.

Photo by Ardy Raghian.
Photo by Ardy Raghian.

Hash oil is a cannabis product obtained by separating the resins from the buds of the cannabis plant by solvent extraction. The most commonly used solvent for this process is butane gas. It is colorless, odorless and heavier than air. Thus its fumes could travel low through the floor until it reaches an ignition source.

Santa Cruz Fire Department battalion chief Mike Venezio stated in a media release that “a battalion chief saw a column of smoke coming from the area and requested fire units to respond. A second alarm was requested due to the fire impingement on the apartment building and the number of victims we encountered.”

Upon the arrival of the fire units, flames shot into the air from the four-story building with occasional loud “pops” coming from the garage. These additional explosions came from butane canisters and further hindered the firefighters’ efforts to suppress the fire as well as the emergency response members’ efforts to rescue any victims.

After the response teams arrived, the three victims were flown to the local trauma center. The Fire Department reported that 60-70 percent of their bodies were scarred with second and third degree burns.

“They [have] a long road ahead of them in terms of recovery,” said Santa Cruz deputy chief of police Steven Clark. The victims are still currently in extremely critical conditions.

“Typically with burns, you deal with the initial trauma,” said Santa Cruz fire chief Jeff Trapp. “And then it becomes an issue of infection. It’s a very long process. They are going to be in critical condition for quite a while.”

In February 2013, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) alerted fire and police departments of increasing hash oil explosions across the U.S. These explosions seemed to be increasing in states with legalized use and increasing availability of medical marijuana. In addition, butane is easily obtainable, available over-the-counter in eight ounce cans.

The investigation points to the pilot light in the water heater as the source that ignited the butane gas fumes and resulted in the blast. The explosion blew out the wall next to the water heater, sending flames into the storage room in which the three victims were located.

Based off of FEMA’s alert of these increasing hash oil dangers across the U.S. and the current reports of the ongoing investigation, Trapp said that there is currently no telling of how seriously these trends will increase and when they will strike next.

“It’s one of those incidents that happen infrequently in Santa Cruz, although it has been a trend that has been identified nationwide over the last couple of years.” Trapp said. “We really don’t know how much is going on out there with the potential for these problems.”