STONEHAM — A letter carrier saw smoke pouring from a second-floor apartment on Hersam Street as he was heading to work Wednesday. By later in the morning, authorities had shifted their attention to what the postal worker could not see from outside: marijuana plants, lots of marijuana plants, $2 million worth, to be specific, authorities said.
The roughly 480 plants strewn across the apartment could produce upward of 960 pounds of marijuana buds, police said.
Firefighters extinguished the two-alarm blaze in the yellow structure shortly after arriving Wednesday morning, but not before the apartment was made uninhabitable by fire, water, and smoke damage.
No one was home when the flames broke out, Stoneham police spokesman John Guilfoil said. The apartment’s 35-year-old tenant, who was not identified, is a person of interest in the drug investigation and is being sought for questioning.
“It’s something we take pretty seriously,” Stoneham Police Chief James McIntyre said. “Drugs are something that’s in every community and something we take very seriously.”
On a usually quiet street mere feet away from Stoneham’s Town Common, agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration and crews in white hazardous-material suits spent hours removing the plants in cardboard boxes marked evidence. Shards of glass poked from charred window panes that firefighters broke for ventilation. Police tape blocked the street from traffic.
Guilfoil could not estimate the damage to the apartment Wednesday afternoon but said the plants emerged intact.
“This was a major, sophisticated, drug-producing operation that has been shut down,” he said in a release.
One firefighter suffered minor injuries while helping to locate and extinguish the blaze, Guilfoil said. The letter carrier who discovered the smoke knocked on a first-floor door, warned the resident inside, and called police, Guilfoil said. Water damage rendered the first-floor apartment uninhabitable.
Neighbors expressed concern Wednesday that a drug operation appeared to have been conducted in their backyards. David Riddell, 67, lives directly behind the house that went up in flames. He said he never found anything suspicious about the apartment.
“I had no clue that there was even anyone living upstairs,” he said. “I just can’t believe it was going on without anyone knowing.”
Erin Riddell, who lives across the street from her father, rushed into his apartment to wake him when she smelled an odor like burning plastic. The 37-year-old mother was glad the marijuana was discovered.
“I’m happy that it’s gone,” she said. “I’ve grown up on this street my whole life, and this is the first time we’ve ever experienced anything like this.”
Angela Clapp worried about raising a 13- and 16-year-old in a neighborhood where she knows drugs have been a problem. She was not surprised the operation was going on undetected.
“In this neighborhood, people mind their own business,” she said. “I worry about it a lot. I know they have drugs around here.”
The fire’s cause remains under investigation. The state fire marshal’s office is also investigating.