Cal Fire is done for now with burning piles of vegetation left over from a Cambria fuel break project — and none too soon for some nearby neighbors upset over heavy smoke coming around and into their homes.
“I could hardly breathe,” said John Nasralla, who lives in the 1000 block of Hillcrest Drive, next door to the Cambria Pines by the Sea Ranch, where miles of shaded fuel break was cut in the fall to help keep fire from spreading from the pine forest into nearby homes, or vice versa. Smoke was “very, very heavy,” he said, while adding, “I appreciate what they’re doing.”
Cal Fire has been burning piles intermittently over the past three months, according to Cal Fire Forester Alan Peters, but “the piles ignited (Thursday) are the last piles that we plan to burn this spring.”
“The house reeks of it, the carpeting, the garage, it’s intense,” said Brett White, another neighbor of the ranch, also known as the Covell Ranch. White lives near the intersection of Sunbury Avenue and Ashby Lane. He added, “we almost left home about 11 o’clock (Thursday) night,” due to the smoke.
Smoke was so heavy, and visible from such a distance, White said, the narrow, twisting streets attracted 50 to 60 cars Thursday afternoon, as drivers came up to see what was burning and if everything was OK.
Peters said Cal Fire had to burn, not haul away or chip, the piles due to the presence of French broom, a highly flammable invasive plant.
“It was determined that burning is the best way to destroy the seeds and discourage weed spread,” he said in an email. “Were it not for the presence of French broom, no burning would have been necessary and mastication could have completed all slash disposal.”
Cal Trans tried to plan the burns for when breezes were blowing away from homes, Peters said, noting that “piles along Northampton on the north side of the houses were ignited during southwest winds and the piles near the cemetery south of the homes were ignited during northwest winds.”
“Overall, the pile burning went well since most days the smoke has behaved as planned,” Peter said. “However, we knew despite our best plans that burning this close to a community would likely cause some nuisance issues.”
Neighbors also said burning piles were often left unattended and were concerned about possible spread.
“All piles have containment lines around them and are patrolled several times daily to ensure that conditions are safe,” Peters responded. “Due diligence does not require piles to be monitored at all times and we will take appropriate action if conditions warrant.”
Neighbors also complained about a lack of notice that the burns would be happening.
“On burn days prior to fire season, folks should be aware of the possibility that burning will occur throughout the state,” even without specific notice, Peters said. He added, “We normally don’t issue news releases for pile burning but it may be helpful to issue a seasonal news release that pile burning is likely in specific areas on burn days.”
Notice of the burns sometimes did go out on Twitter, a web-based message distribution system that allows users to post updates of up to 140 characters. At the request of a neighbor, the Twitter handle @CALFIRE_SLO tweeted same-day notices of burns on Dec. 12, Feb. 19 and on Thursday — “just about every day we’ve burned in Cambria,” Peters said.
It’s difficult to give notice, Peters explained, since “we typically do not decide to burn until crews arrive at the site and conduct a test burn to see how the smoke behaves.”
“We realize that smoke can be an important nuisance,” Peters said, “and have done all we can to complete this project with as little impact to the community as possible.”