By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
A 4-year-old’s toys and an infant entertainment center sat in the Littleton townhouse along with butane cans and pot trimmings when vapors from hash oil sparked and exploded earlier this spring.
An 8-month-old lay asleep directly above the kitchen where 34-year-old Corbin Braithwaite later told authorities he was cooking “wax,” or hash oil from “shake,” marijuana discards that he regularly found when he went dumpster diving outside pot shops.
The two children and their mother escaped the explosion and fire uninjured, but Braithwaite — who regularly cared for the kids — suffered burns, and faces multiple arson, drug and child abuse charges. (Click here to read the arrest affidavit in Braithwaite’s case. Click here to see the charges he’s facing.)
Now that recreational marijuana is legal, Colorado has become ground zero for hash oil fires, with about 30 so far this year, far outpacing the rest of the country.
During the first five months of this year, there have been six hash oil explosions in California, one in Hawaii and one in Montana, according to Kevin Wong, an intelligence analyst who tracks hash fires for the Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a regional branch of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.
“We are the epicenter for all this stuff,” Wong said. “The number of explosions that we’ve had in Colorado far exceeds the number in all the other states put together.”
Like home meth labs, home THC extraction labs — as law enforcement officers call them — are now springing up across the state because the concentrated hash oil is so profitable, potent and relatively simple to make with marijuana and butane or other solvents. It’s especially attractive to some who make it because they can use discarded pot and cheap solvents.
When medical marijuana began to proliferate in Colorado in 2009, Wong said that year he had heard of only two Colorado hash oil fires. From 2010 through 2012, none were reported to police or fire authorities. In 2013, Wong’s office confirmed 12 of the fires and already is investigating about 30 in 2014.
Severe burns spike
Few people realize how dangerous the process of making hash oil can be. The highly flammable vapors from the solvents can trigger explosions and cause severe burns that generate massive medical bills, often for people who are uninsured.
The primary burn center in the Denver, the Burn-Trauma Intensive Care Unit at the University of Colorado Hospital, has seen a dramatic spike in the number of patients injured in hash oil fires.
In just the first five months of this year, the CU burn center has cared for 10 patients. Last year there were 11, and from 2010 through 2012, the hospital only saw one patient suffering a hash oil burn annually.
“It’s so reckless and unnecessary. If we can bring these numbers down, I know we can benefit the rest of the country,” said Camy Boyle, associate nurse manager for CU’s burn ICU.
Boyle has been collecting data on the hash oil burn patients and recently presented her findings to a gathering of national burn specialists at a conference in Boston. She said health officials in other states including California, Oregon and Michigan are just beginning to see hash oil fire victims and that Colorado has a responsibility to ban home hash oil production and warn people here and around the country before more people get hurt.
Her study found that the hash oil burn patients are almost always men in their 30s. On average, they end up with severe burns over 10 percent of their bodies —primarily on their hands and face — and have to stay in the hospital an average of nine days. (Boyle and law enforcement officials are hosting a free class at the University of Colorado Hospital on July 25 to help fire, police and emergency health workers learn more about hash oil fires and the burns they cause. To learn more, click here. To sign up, click here.)
“They have a lot of pain and they struggle with it for many, many months, even up to a year afterwards,” Boyle said. “There’s a lot of nerve damage and there are psychological impacts. They have guilt and stress and anxiety.
“There’s a big impact on the patient and also on the health care system,” Boyle said.
Her study did not track how many patients were uninsured, but she said the preventable fires are hard on “patients, hospitals and everybody.”
‘A bomb in my hands’
Wayne Winkler of Englewood knows that pain all too well. Tears fill his eyes and he turns away as he recalls the agony of Nov. 2, 2012. On that day, he set fire to his own home, displacing his wife and two children, now 16 and 11, for three months and suffered severe burns that landed him at the CU hospital for two weeks.
A carpenter who used to work in the marijuana industry, Winkler said a friend had given him a bunch of “trim,” leftover cuttings from the plants.
“It’s just trash really. I had a couple bags of leaves. A friend asked if I could make him some butane hash oil,” Winker recalled.
He said he had made it five or six times before, but always outside.
“I don’t smoke it because it’s too concentrated for me,” Winkler said. “I’ve never had a problem (making it) in the past. It was cold outside, so I did it right here in the living room.”
Winkler used butane to extract the liquid THC from the plants. He had water boiling on the stove in the kitchen. As Winkler walked through his kitchen with a bowl of the hash oil in his hands, a spark from the stove leapt toward him. He saw the vapor tail dance through the air and knew he was in trouble.
“I literally had a bomb in my hands. The vapors had built up in my house and I had a super-condensed ball of vapors in my hands,” Winkler said.
“Instantaneously, the fire tail jumped straight to the bowl and it exploded into my hands,” he said.
Winkler suffered severe burns on his hands, neck and elbows.
“My clothes saved me from burning completely up,” he said.
His wife and two sons weren’t home at the time.
“It was literally an inferno, a raging inferno. The whole wall from the floor to the ceiling in the kitchen was on fire. I fell back into the back room and dropped and rolled. I’m literally on fire and the oil rolled down my hands and burned my hands, through the full thickness of my skin.
“I go to grab the door knob and the door doesn’t open. My skin had rolled off on the door knob.”
Winkler had a fire extinguisher, but it didn’t work. He had a 35-gallon trash can full of water since he has a giant fish tank. As he dunked a pot in water and threw it on the blaze, he remembers seeing his own skin floating to the surface.
He threw water on the blaze, and at first, the fire seemed to grow. Desperate, he kept dunking the pot and pouring more water on the fire until he finally doused it.
Fire and emergency officials never knew about the fire because Winkler didn’t call 911.
“I was afraid to call for help,” he said, he said choking with emotion.
Instead, he tried to call his wife. With little skin left on his fingertips, he had trouble swiping his phone. Finally, he was able to call.
“I’m so sorry,” he told her over and over, then waited desperately for her to come help.
“I put my hands in the freezer to cool them off,” Winker said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Burnt flesh, melted plastic
To this day, he remembers the smell of burnt flesh and melted plastic that overwhelmed him as he tried to cool his hands.
Winkler’s wife initially took him to Swedish Medical Center, where he felt the workers looked down on him because he was honest about how the fire started. Doctors at Swedish transferred him to CU because his burns were so severe.
Winkler said the pain was excruciating.
“It never stopped burning. It was so intense, so deep, like a nerve that would not stop burning,” Winkler said. “They scrape you every day. They scrape and scrub your burns. It’s the worst pain.”
He ended up having to have grafts with skin from his thighs and said the pain after the grafts was even worse than the original burns.
The complications didn’t end when Winkler left the hospital. He got hooked on pain pills for several months. His physical recovery has been remarkable and the insurance company covered extensive repairs at his home. Winkler’s burn scars are subtle on his face and hands. Nonetheless, he doesn’t have the same mobility that he once did and hasn’t found as much carpentry work as he did in the past.
Winkler was uninsured at the time of the accident. A hospital financial counselor helped him get his bills paid, but he was unable to work for a year, which strained the family’s finances.
Despite all the difficulties, Winkler feels blessed to be alive. He is determined to try to prevent others from repeating his mistakes. If people want hash oil, he encourages them to buy it from dispensaries or pot shops, but not to try to make it themselves.
As Winkler lay in the hospital crying out from the pain and hearing the screams of other burn victims, he promised that if he survived, he would speak out about the dangers of making hash oil.
“God,” I said, “if you can get me through this, I’ll roar like a lion for you.”
Winkler now talks regularly about halting hash oil fires and attends support groups for burn victims.
He vividly recalls a burn victim from a water-heater explosion visiting him during his hospital stay.
The man gave him a simple message that he’s trying to give to others: “You’re loved. I’m here if you need me.”