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The smell of raw marijuana filled the air as officers took stock of a large pot farm and inspected a Robinson Crusoe-like encampment raided Thursday morning.

The operation, off Highway 26 between Mokelumne Hill and Paloma Road, was one of two busted in raids conducted this week by county deputies and officers from the state´s Campaign Against Marijuana Planting program.

CAMP officers help provide additional personnel and equipment such as helicopters, when marijuana plantations are found in steep and overgrown terrain, Sheriff Dennis Downum said.

The first combined raid this week was at an operation off Red Hill Road east of the county waste transfer station.

Plants in both raids ranged up to four feet tall and were described as “medium” by sheriff´s Capt. Mike Walker. Both farms were on land belonging to the federal Bureau of Land Management. “These would probably be ready the end of September, first part of October,” Walker said Thursday.

About 3,000 plants were confiscated in Wednesday´s operation and were hauled out in one trip by a CAMP helicopter to a nearby staging area.

An early count on Thursday came up with about 500 plants, but authorities were searching a winding network of steep, narrow trails for more patches.

Two suspects were arrested in Thursday´s raid. Officers managed to sneak up on their tent around 5:45 a.m., according to Deputy Louis Larson.

“We caught them in bed,” Larson said. “They were very surprised.” They were also armed. A rifle and handgun were confiscated from the tent, but the two men apparently were taken without incident.

The suspects are described as Mexican nationals. Their names were not available at press time. Two suspects who fled the scene of Wednesday´s raid also are believed to be from Mexico.

These types of operations are typically operated by Mexican nationals, sheriff´s Sgt. Eddie Ballard said.

The growers find remote areas on public land and bring in illegal aliens to water, fertilize and harvest the crop, Ballard said. Both farms were spotted during air reconnaissance by authorities. Each operation had an irrigation system and campsites.

At the operation near Mokelumne Hill, the kitchen area included a two-burner stove connected to a five-gallon propane tank; bags of flour and rice; cans and cans of soup, stew and Spam; and boxes of Frosted Flakes and Oreos. Small burlap “hammocks” suspended between tree branches held fresh fruit.

There were also jugs of cooking oil, boxes of laundry detergent, a drying rack made of sticks for the dishes, and shaving cream. A makeshift shower was set up just a few feet away, and holes had been drilled in a large tree limb in which the suspects had neatly placed their toothbrushes.

Authorities are beginning to jump on these types of farms earlier in the year. “I used to wait until the end of the season, but the plants are just too big,” Ballard said. Last year, CAMP-assisted raids netted 2,594 plants in Calaveras County.

The yield from this week´s two busts already surpasses that, and Walker said more combined raids are planned for the future.

Calaveras Enterprise story by Craig Koscho. For more Calaveras news, click: