It was no surprise: Cal Fire declared the start of the 2015 fire season on April 13 — at least a month earlier than usual — in response to bone-dry drought conditions in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. Fire agencies are ramping up staffing levels long before they usually do each year.
On the North Coast, that fire threat is especially serious, because of fire potential in a 3,200-acre, drought-ridden native stand of Monterey pines, a forest filled with thousands of dead, fallen and drying trees. Experts estimate that 40 percent of the forest’s trees are dead and, in some pockets, believe up to 90 percent of the trees have died.
With thousands of dead Monterey pines and other trees being decimated by age, drought, insect attacks and infections such as pitch canker, the town is ripe for a “stand fire,” according to fire and forestry officials.
State and local regulations require property owners to take responsibility for clearing away potential fire fuels, such as standing and downed dead trees, grasses and weeds, brush and flammable materials, especially those too close to homes.
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In town, Cal Fire is responsible for properties with structures on them. Cambria Fire Department has charge of vacant lots, especially those near occupied parcels.
So, during the next few months, someone in uniform will be knocking on the door of every home in Cambria, according to the two fire departments.
Those knocks will precede inspections to determine what actions the owner of each property must take to fend off wildfire.
If nobody’s home, Cal Fire representatives will leave literature explaining what must be done to meet state regulations about creating “defensible space” in the potential ignition zone that extends 30 feet around any structure, and in a secondary zone from 31 to 100 feet out.
Cal Fire defines defensible space as “the buffer you create by removing dead plants, grass and weeds.” In Cambria, that also includes dead standing trees and fallen trunks (of a certain size) and branches lying on the ground.
To better understand the requirements and reasoning behind them, go to www.fire.ca.gov/communi cations/downloads/fact_sheets/DefensibleSpaceFlyer.pdf or www.fscslo.org.
Cal Fire was to start doing the house-by-house inspections almost immediately.
The process could start this week, or as soon as some trainees are taught about the process, Unit Forester Alan Peters and Battalion Chief Phill Veneris said during an April 9 workshop. That training was to have begun at the Cambria Fire Station on Wednesday, April 15.
Mark Miller, chief of the Cambria Fire Department, said his personnel will assist and accompany the Cal Fire inspectors when they need help making sense of Cambria lot lines and mergers, roadways, regulations and other complications.
While officials know the ideal would be removing all the dead and downed trees and other flammable material, they’re also well aware of the constraints on doing so. Removing a standing tree can be expensive, and some properties have several, or many, such trees.
So, Miller said, they’re focusing this year on the 30-foot “zone 1” encircling every home. Complicating the situation is the town’s preponderance of smaller lots, which means the 30-foot radius in some cases may extend onto neighboring properties.
Miller said the county is working to resolve the permit conundrum, in which a permit is required to remove a tree, and replacement trees are to be planted. But the permit fee adds another layer of expense for property owners already facing huge bills for tree removal, he said, and planting replacement trees now, when there’s no spare water with which to irrigate them, seems to be an exercise in futility.
And then there’s the problem of what to do with the wood once the tree is down and cut into manageable chunks.
Many of Cambria’s dead and dying pines have the contagious pitch canker fungus, transported from tree to tree by bugs, beetles and the wind. Wood from North Coast trees isn’t allowed to leave the area, to help keep the infection out of areas that don’t yet have it. And a greenwaste yard on San Simeon Creek Road reportedly is already chock full.
Officials are still searching for the solution to that problem, with suggestions ranging from having another storage yard to having a temporary wood mill or co-generation plant that would burn the wood and create electricity from the heat.
Officials also know that a crucial part of the fire-readiness equation is informing the public. So area agencies and nonprofits are taking their campaigns to the people, over and over again.
Miller is giving presentations to various community groups and panels, and an April 9 workshop gave lots of people a chance to learn more about the situation.
As Cambria faces the fourth year of drought and a looming potential for wildfire in the drying, dying forest, Ed and Carolyn Zirbel wanted to know more about how to get out of town during a burgeoning disaster.
Meanwhile, Bob Schwartz and his son Jonathan came to the April 9 workshop to learn “how to protect my property,” the father said. “If I can leave with one new piece of information it will be worth it” to have gone to the workshop.
They got that and more, along with nearly 150 other people who came to learn about Cambria’s looming fire danger and what to do to before or during emergency situations, such as a rapidly spreading fire, earthquake or flood … what officials call “the big three.”
As the Zirbels left the workshop, he said “we learned something at every one of the booths, including that we weren’t as prepared (for emergencies) as we thought we were. I’m so glad we came. It’s comforting knowing all this help is out there for us.”
The workshop co-sponsored by Cambria Fire Department and Cal Fire featured 10 informational booths staffed by first responders, emergency crews and volunteers from such groups as the Cambria Forest Committee, Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and Red Cross.
At the workshop, people also had reverse 911 and other emergency-notification apps installed on their phones, practiced CPR on a medical dummy and got details about the forest from Cambria Forest Committee members (such as watering select pines under the dripline or span of the branches, rather than at the trunk, and being careful not to weed whack too close to the trunk, so as not to cut the bark, which can give pitch canker a toehold in the tree).
People also learned about their evacuation routes, how to help themselves and their neighbors through CERT, and some signed up for a May 15 “chipping event,” during which wood and brush are reduced to chips that can be used for mulch.
“The fire threat and the state of our forest didn’t happen overnight. It took 80 years to get to this point. And we can’t fix it overnight,” Miller said. “But we can make great strides now toward making our town safer if we all work together.”
Key dates in the coming months, according to Cambria Fire Chief Mark Miller and others.
Now: Property owners can begin anytime removing flammables, especially dead trees and fallen wood of a 12-inch diameter or bigger, from the defensible-space zones. Deadline to complete the work is July 1.
Tuesday, April 21: 6 p.m., Miller will give a public-service fire-safety presentation at a Cambria Democratic Club meeting at Dragon Bistro, 2150 Center St., one of several such talks he’s scheduled to give.
Thursday, April 23: Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors expected to declare fire-hazard public nuisances, the first legal step in notifying property owners that they must clear away the flammables on vacant lots.
Thursday and Friday, April 23-24: Miller and other fire officials are to lead a defensible-space inspectors’ class at the fire station, with students from all over the state.
Friday, April 24: Formal “Fire Hazard/Fuel Reduction” notices to landowners with properties on the official list.
Friday, May 1: CCSD will advertise for a contractor to clear lots on the list if property owners don’t have the work done by the July 1 deadline. Contractors must submit bids by May 20; the Fire Department will announce May 25 which firm won the bid.
Wednesday, May 6: 10 a.m., Cal Fire state Director Ken Pimlott to lead a media briefing in Cambria, as part of the agency’s observation of Wildfire Awareness Week (May 3-9).
Saturday, May 9: A free open house forum at Cambria Fire, 2850 Burton Drive, with questions answered, information available and a barbecue.
Friday, May 15: The first free “chipping event,” during which crews chip up wood that landowners have left at their roadside property lines. For details or to sign up, contact Cambria Fire Department, 2850 Burton Drive, 927-6240.
Wednesday, July 1: Deadline for property owners to have completed their “defensible space” work.
Friday, July 24: Following an expected CCSD board vote July 23 authorizing the work, the winning contractor will begin work on uncleared lots on the list.