By Sara Lin and Jonathan Abrams
The Los Angeles Times
SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY, Calif. — San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies shot and killed a camouflage-clad gunman Monday during a shootout with three people protecting a marijuana crop in mountains north of Fontana, officials said.
A manhunt for two others involved in the firefight continued into the night, with deputies searching the rugged terrain on foot and in four-wheelers. Late Monday, the search was called off, with no arrests made.
The shots were fired as deputies working with the U.S. Forest Service were preparing to destroy a large marijuana field near Lytle Creek in the San Gabriel Mountains, an area north of Fontana marked by steep hills and manzanita, said sheriff's spokeswoman Jodi Miller.
State drug enforcement officials said they had seen a major increase in illicit pot farms, in part because drug traffickers consider marijuana more lucrative and easier to produce than methamphetamine.
Growers often set up their marijuana farms in remote national forests and parks, where large crops are hard for law enforcement officials to find. Doing so also allows drug traffickers to avoid having their own land or assets confiscated by authorities.
The state's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting already has seized a record 2,232,937 marijuana plants this year -- the vast majority on public lands. It seized 1.7 million plants in 2006, triple the amount confiscated in 2005.
"With the drug trafficking organization as organized as it is, they are less likely to grow on private land," said Special Agent Holly Swartz of the state Department of Justice. "It's not an individual effort anymore. They need more remote land to grow more marijuana."
During Monday's raid in Lytle Creek, at least three people dressed in camouflage and armed with automatic weapons were camping at the site and fired on the deputies as they approached the field about 7:30 a.m., said Sgt. Rick Ells of the California Highway Patrol.
The deputies returned fire and fatally wounded one gunman, who had climbed up a hill apparently to seek a better shooting position.
He was taken to a ranger station, where he was pronounced dead, Miller said.
About 40 deputies, aided by a helicopter, searched for the other two gunmen. Authorities requested four-wheel-drive vehicles as backup to navigate the area's steep terrain. California Highway Patrol officers closed Lytle Creek Road to aid the search, officials said.
They estimate the field contained about 2,500 marijuana plants with a street value of $6 million.
Although officials have witnessed an increase in indoor pot farms in residential areas — many with elaborate irrigation and ventilation systems — outdoor marijuana cultivation remains a problem.
"They are both very profitable, and they are both being grown by different people," said Riverside County Sheriff's Investigator Jerry Franchville. "It all depends on preference. Some people have money and they don't mind converting a house into a growth. Others use public land that have a convenient water source."
U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Pam Bierce said officials had discovered marijuana in the Lytle Creek area before, but this was the first time deputies had been shot at.
"Our guys realize the possibility of this happening, so they go in prepared," Bierce said.
The area is popular among local residents for camping and hiking.
"There are not many trails, so you have to make your own," said Michelle Walker, 27, of Colton, who was camping in the area with her fiance Sunday. "I can see how it's probably pretty easy to hide something like that."
In the last five years, officials have destroyed several marijuana crops in the San Bernardino National Forest.
Last week, officials from the Riverside County Sheriff's Department and the state Department of Justice's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement hiked about two miles off California 74 between Idyllwild and Hemet to remove 5,000 marijuana plants with an estimated street value of $15 million.
Riverside County officials this year have seized about 150,000 outdoor plants, estimated to be worth $600 million, Franchville said.
"Our numbers have already doubled," he added.
San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies discovered almost 5,000 plants last September in the mountains near California 330. They arrested seven Mexican nationals — two living among the plants.
The remote and hilly areas near Temecula also serve as a popular farming area. Five thousand plants with an estimated street value of $4 million were seized eight years ago in terrain so rugged that the handlers could get to the area only by helicopter.
Copyright 2007 The Los Angeles Times
Pot farmers open fire on Calif. deputies; one gunman fatally shot