Vail Valley man injured in hash oil explosion
April 29, 2015
EAGLE-VAIL — Colorado's marijuana industry has taken off with a bang — literally.
An Eagle-Vail man said a malfunctioning valve in his legal hash oil cooking system caused an explosion Wednesday afternoon.
About two hours after the explosion, Ryne Wilhelmi, 24, called the Vail Daily from the local hospital to tell his side of the story.
Wilhelmi said he was outside on the back porch of his Eagle-Vail townhome when a valve failed on his closed-loop hash oil system. They're designed to keep highly flammable butane gas from escaping.
"The valve popped, and I jumped back," Wilhelmi said. "When I did, the static electricity in my sweatshirt ignited it."
Wilhelmi said he was running a state-approved closed-loop system, legal in Colorado.
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"It's legal as long as you're running a closed-loop system," Wilhelmi said.
It's prohibited, Sheriff says
The closed-loop system is prohibited in residential areas, the Eagle County Sheriff's Office said in a statement.
"If you're in a residential area, you're endangering everyone around you, and yourself," said Jessie Mosher, public information officer with the Sheriff's Office.
Wilhelmi will be charged with reckless endangerment, a Class 3 misdemeanor; criminal mischief, a Class 6 felony; first degree arson, a Class 3 felony; and offenses relating to marijuana and marijuana concentrate, a Class 3 felony.
Wilhelmi was wearing shorts and a T-shirt when the explosion occurred. He said he has burns on his arms and legs.
"This is a legitimate part failure," Wilhelmi said. "I'm all about safety and keeping (stuff) safe when it does go wrong."
Wilhelmi said he moved quickly to ensure his neighbors' safety.
"When the flames went up, I made everything as safe as I could," he said. "I just went into safety mode as quickly as I could."
"It was a very minor catch, and I did everything I could to make it safe," he said.
When deputies with the Eagle County Sheriff's Office arrived on scene, they suspected Wilhelmi of making butane hash oil, which caused the explosion. Butane hash oil is a highly concentrated form of marijuana. It is made with butane gas and marijuana in a pressurized metal tube.
But without proper ventilation, butane fumes can linger. All it takes is a spark of static electricity to ignite a room, local firefighters said.
The back of Dustin Tombari's townhome backs up to a 30-foot-wide strip of land and trees between Wilhelmi's townhome complex and his.
Tombari said the explosion was so loud he thought it was in his own home.
Wilhelmi dragged the burner across that open space and dropped it into green grass and mud, telling Tombari he was trying to make it "safer."
"When he dropped it, he opened a valve and a bunch of white stuff came out," Tombari said.
Alante Shelby, 24, moved to the area from Michigan three weeks ago and lives in the townhome next to Wilhelmi.
The cooker exploded at 12:37 p.m. Wednesday, Shelby said.
"I was downstairs sleeping when I heard a boom," Shelby said. "It sounded like a sonic boom. I looked out and saw a bunch of smoke."
He saw a red push broom was on fire just off the porch, right under a pine tree and in a pile of wet needles.
"It's dangerous," Shelby said. "He was badly burned."
Not a makeshift cooker
Wilhelm pointed out that his was not one of the makeshift hash oil operations that cause so many explosions, such as the one last year in Avon's Liftview Apartments that blew an 8-foot hole in the kitchen drywall.
"When they use butane, the gases gather and the danger of explosions is much higher," Wilhelmi said.
Even with a system like his, Wilhelmi said it's not accident proof.
"Accidents happen, even with closed-loop systems that are well maintained," he said.
Wilhelmi had not been charged with anything by mid afternoon Wednesday. The Eagle County Sheriff's Office said Wednesday that Wilhelmi will be charged with something, but they are still investigating the case and have not yet determined the charges.
He said he was doing nothing illegal and was "totally compliant" with the deputies and firefighters.
As the scene was secured by Eagle County sheriff's deputies and firefighters from the Eagle River Fire Protection District, an exhaust fan was blowing out from a downstairs bedroom with a Bob Marley flag hanging from the window. The smell of marijuana wafted out of the townhome from that bedroom door.
Second hash oil explosion in a year
Wednesday's hash oil explosion in Eagle-Vail is the second in a year in Eagle County.
Joshua Rosenbaum, 22, was using one of those makeshift cookers when he blew an 8-foot hole in the kitchen drywall of his Liftview apartment in Avon. Rosenbaum was trying to produce hash oil, but instead produced an explosion when butane gas ignited.
Rosenbaum was home alone and no one was injured.
It's a felony in Eagle County
Some prosecutors are charging hash cookers with felonies, while others say hash oil production is protected under a provision of Colorado's legal pot law.
In Eagle County, District Attorney Bruce Brown says it's a felony. He charged Rosenbaum with arson, a felony, to which Rosenbaum eventually pleaded guilty.
Rosenbaum received a deferred four-year prison sentence, which means that if he can stay out of trouble for four years, apologizes to everyone in the neighborhood, speaks to schools and youth organizations, does useful community service and keeps a full-time job, he won't go to prison.
In addition to Wednesday's Eagle-Vail explosion, similar explosions have hit Leadville, Frisco and Avon, said the District Attorney's Office.
"As Coloradans, we should be setting an example for other states. Leave the hash oil distilling to the professionals," Brown said when Rosenbaum was arrested and charged.
Hash oil blows up
Hash oil is typically made by packing the castoff leaves and stems of pot plants into a pipe and pouring highly flammable butane through it. The concoction is heated to make the potent oil. It's far less expensive than buying it in stores.
The golden-colored mixture can be up to 80 percent THC, marijuana's intoxicating chemical. Devotees say one or two drops can produce a more euphoric high than an entire joint. It can also be infused into baked goods or vaporized.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @torqueandrecoil.