Public scrutinizes firebreak plan

County may hold hearing in December on proposal to cut 4-mile-long path in undeveloped parts of town

ktanner@thetribunenews.comNovember 12, 2011 

A public review process now under way will help determine the pros and cons of a County/Cal Fire plan to carve a 4-mile-long, 100-foot-wide firebreak between undeveloped parts of the forest and adjacent neighborhoods in Cambria.

The shaded fuel break — meaning larger trees would be left while low-lying vegetation is removed — is intended to protect residential areas from a wildfire spreading into town from wildland Monterey pine forest and also to protect the forest from fire spreading there from the residential areas.

The plan was released for public review Aug. 29. Public comment closed Oct. 10. Cal Fire expects to release its compilation this week of responses to comments on the plan, which also is undergoing county review and, possibly, review by the California Coastal Commission.

A county hearing may happen in early December, according to Cal Fire forester Alan Peters. That hearing is expected to be conducted by a planning officer.

Why is a “development permit” required for a project that will do nothing but remove vegetation? According to coastal development rules, “development” means “the removal or harvesting of major vegetation other than for agricultural purposes, kelp harvesting, and timber operations.”

Nearly all of the Cambria area is in the “coastal zone,” which varies in width from several hundred feet up to 5 miles. Additionally, much of Cambria is considered “environmentally sensitive habitat area” because of the forest.

Cambria Fire Chief Mark Miller, Cambria Pines By The Sea Ranch owners Ralph and Tracy Covell, conservation easement holders The Nature Conservancy and Cal Fire support the project as planned as a way to protect both the town and the forest.

Others, such as Richard Hawley and Mary Webb of Greenspace — The Cambria Land Trust, and some members of the Cambria Forest Committee, say the shaded fuel break concept may be a good one, but the planned firebreak is too big and the method being contemplated — using a mechanical masticator — is too harsh for the delicate environment.

They and others also say the plan violates The Nature Conservancy’s $4.5 million conservation easement over the forested sections of the ranch, a document that bans from the property any cattle or off-road use of motorized vehicles.

Covell has said that, after the firebreak is in place, the best method to maintain it will be occasional cattle grazing.

The Cambria forest is the only timberland area in this county’s coastal zone, according to Peters, who is shepherding the firebreak project for Cal Fire.

For the firebreak project, he wrote in an email to The Cambrian, Cal Fire could have instead undergone a California Forest Practice Rules process, which also includes environmental review for projects done on timberland.

That process is less time-consuming, but it doesn’t involve the community as much as a coastal development permit process does.

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