Some state legislators and fire officials apparently have begun to focus on Cambria’s triple whammy — many dead and dying trees, lots of homes built within a dense, aging Monterey pine forest, and a Stage 3 water-supply emergency in fourth year of drought. The issues also are drawing national attention.
If proper measures aren’t taken soon, the situation could be a recipe for disaster, according to some fire and other officials. Unfortunately, some of those measures are very expensive and time consuming, and summer’s coming.
Residents are fielding a wealth of “do and don’t” admonitions, requirements for action and opportunities to learn more.
Fire, services district and other leaders are continuing to take their fire-protection messages to the public and to state and national agencies that could provide grant money to help reduce the risk to residents, structures and the forest itself, along with the wildlife and species within that rare native stand.
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In fact, according to Fire Chief Mark Miller of the Cambria Fire Department, state-level Cal Fire officials and county fire chiefs will be in Cambria on May 6 to hold a news conference on Bridge Street to emphasize their annual “Wildfire Awareness Week” efforts May 3-9. The 2015 fire season has begun, bringing with it increased fire-crew staffing and equipment assignments, along with heightened fire risk.
Plenty of happenings
Meanwhile, the town is abuzz with related activity, including:
• Special events, including a May 9 open house from noon to 4 p.m. at the Cambria Fire Station, 2850 Burton Drive, with questions answered, information provided, fun for the kids and free burgers and hot dogs.
• A two-day defensible-space class held April 23-24 in Cambria for fire-prevention officers from all over Southern California. Miller said the classes provided “information and tools needed to adequately inspect, advise and be knowledgeable about hazards, safety measures, mitigation techniques, building products and laws associated with defensible space and home hardening in the wildland urban interface” between the forest and the homes. He said the best part was “an intense brainstorming session that came about after a tour of the community.”
• Efforts continue to streamline county permit requirements for removing dead trees. According to Supervisor Bruce Gibson and Jerry Gruber, general manager of the Cambria Community Services District, officials are considering a drought-related blanket permit for such removals, to be given to and administered by the services district.
Gibson said officials also are considering delaying until after the drought is over the requirements to plant replacement trees for any live tree taken out, even one that appears to be dying.
• Agency officials and representatives of local nonprofits continue looking for grant opportunities, writing and shepherding the applications, with at least one recent success.
• The draft CCSD budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year will include “a good chunk of money set aside so the district can address removal of dead trees on our own properties,” Gruber said April 23. While the set-aside won’t be large enough to cover every dead tree the district owns, he said the emphasis would be trees “that represent a threat to people’s homes,” especially in the interface area between Fiscalini Ranch Preserve’s boundary and residential neighborhoods.
• Tree crews are removing dead pines and other trees.
• There’ll be a series of days on which California Conservation Corps and other crews will do free chipping of wood from both residential and vacant properties, wood that must be stacked at the road’s edge.
• In an annual action, CCSD directors unanimously approved on April 23 declaring fire fuels on vacant lots to be a public nuisance and hazard. Those fire fuels now must be removed by July 1.
• CCSD directors also approved having two new ad hoc committees to dissect and prepare draft responses to recent grand jury reports on Cambria fire danger and emergency-services issues.
Muril Clift, vice president of the Board of Directors, and Director Jim Bahringer will serve on the emergency-services ad hoc committee, while board President Gail Robinette and Director Mike Thompson will serve on the fire-danger committee.
Director Amanda Rice wanted to serve on the fire-oriented committee because she’d spent years researching and working on those issues, but Robinette did not appoint Rice to that post, saying “I thought another look with fresh eyes would be of value.”
• Fire-safety inspections are being done jointly this year by Cal Fire and Cambria Fire Department, with inspectors planning to visit every home in town. (Cal Fire has jurisdiction over developed lots.)
Inspectors were on Happy Hill on April 28, Miller said, adding that with each inspection taking about 20 minutes, the process isn’t a quick one. “People are asking a lot of questions, which is good,” the fire chief said. “We’re getting the word out,” a vital mission in this emergency situation.
Clift said inspectors had been in his neighborhood April 22, and were doing “an excellent job, going door to door, making recommendations above and beyond” the required removal of dead trees, and clearing of brush, weeds and grasses.
• Consequently, landscapers and property owners have begun their annual weed-abatement clearing to reduce and remove brushy, woody flammable material on vacant lots and around homes.
Spreading the word
Cambria’s fire risk is what brought Nathan Rott to Cambria recently. The National Public Radio reporter/
producer from Los Angeles was researching the California drought situation and the fire danger it has brought to the forefront in many of the state’s communities.
Rott attended one of two days of the classes held for the fire-prevention officers group that’s part of the Cal Fire chiefs association’s southern chapter, which Miller co-chairs.
“Cambria is a smaller, probably more volatile example of what a lot of places in California are dealing with this year … tree die-off of an unprecedented rate,” much of which is either directly or indirectly caused by the drought, Rott said in an April 28 phone interview.
He said the May 6 media-only event in Cambria is drawing state level Cal Fire officials to town, “which definitely adds a degree of credibility about what they’re saying” about the severity of fire danger in Cambria. Rott said the 80 to 90 percent die-off of trees he’s been told exists in some parts of Cambria “is hugely problematic for firefighting efforts.”
“It’s a fascinating and scary situation,” the reporter said. “It will be interesting to see how it plays out,” although he added that he hopes the next time he comes to Cambria, it will be for a vacation, rather than to cover a disaster.
Property owners must preregister to have free “chipping” services Friday, May 15, for small branches and other cut wood that’s less than 5 inches in diameter and shorter than 7 feet long.
Fire department officials changed one parameter of the service last week: It now will be available to owners of developed parcels and vacant lots. In previous years, it was only for wood collected from properties with structures on them.
Chips will be blown back onto the property from which the wood was taken.
Those wishing to participate must complete a simple sign-up form, which must be returned to the Cambria Fire Department station, 2850 Burton Drive, no later than 5 p.m. Thursday, May 14, so crews can plot their routes efficiently.
To make it more convenient for residents wishing to participate, sign-up sheets also are available at the Cambria Community Services District administrative offices at 1316 Tamsen St., Suite 201, the Cambria Chamber of Commerce, 767 Main St., and the Cambria Library, 1049 Main St.
For details, call 927-6240.
One grant approved
Miller said Cambria Fire recently qualified for $60,477 in Department of Homeland Security/
Federal Emergency Management Agency grant funds to replace 10-year-old equipment that helps firefighters breathe safely in a smoky fire.
The district is to provide a $3,023 grant match for the 10 self-contained breathing apparatus tanks and packs, and 20 face masks that operate similarly to SCUBA tanks, but which aren’t rated for underwater use.
Each of the devices includes a regulator, gauge and warning bells to alert the firefighter when the air level is getting low. By reducing the air pressure from the tank, but maintaining a steady level of air pressure into the mask, the device not only provides air but also “keeps you from being able to suck in contaminants from the outside,” such as smoke, Miller explained.