Marshall and Ilme Hamilton of Cambria know about preparing for wildfires. They did it years ago around their former Pinyon Crest home in the mountains above Palm Desert, and more recently on the 1.1 forested acres that surround their Leimert-area house in Cambria.
When a lightning-triggered wildfire was bearing down on the Hamiltons’ former high desert neighborhood in the mid-1990s, they and their neighbors were evacuated for three days.
“Cal Fire told us they thought they could save our house,” Marshall Hamilton recalled, “because we’d created defensible space around it” by clearing away and hauling away many trailer loads of flammables, such as dry brush.
In a somber note, he added, “Some of our neighbors had not prepared, and their procrastination cost them their homes.”
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Hamilton told that story several times Wednesday, May 6, once to a reporter and again to more than 50 people assembled in driveway of the Hamiltons’ Cambria Pines Road home that’s embedded in the town’s aging native Monterey pine forest.
The high-ranking Cal Fire and U.S. Forest Service officials, and those from other emergency-oriented agencies, had assembled at the Hamiltons’ place to participate in a “Wildfire Awareness Week” news conference to alert Cambrians and Californians about the urgency of preparing for wildfire in this fourth year of drought.
When the officials thanked the couple for their hospitality, Marshall Hamilton replied, “It’s good to have firefighters know where you live,” triggering laughter from the professionals.
Officials look ahead
The keynote speakers at the event — Chief Ken Pimlott, statewide director of Cal Fire, and Chief Shawna Legarza, fire and aviation director of the U.S. Forest Service’s Region 5 — thanked the Hamiltons for sharing their home and their story.
Pimlott said that Marshall Hamilton “gave the perfect example of what happens if you do what needs to be done, and if you don’t. We couldn’t have said it better.”
The state director, who was on a tight public-appearance schedule during Wildfire Awareness Week, said the Cambria event was special for many reasons.
He said Sacramento officials are discussing the Cambria situation “nearly every day” during this year when the whole state is under a fire-preparedness microscope, and where Cal Fire crews are battling about 200 fires a week, double the average.
Pimlott said other news conferences statewide are usually held in or in front of buildings in cities.
“This is the first venue where the work’s already been done. ... We’re by a home where the owner has created defensible space to protect his property,” and Cal Fire and the California Conservation Corps crews have created a fuel break from all the way along Bridge Street to behind the Hamiltons’ lot.
Cambrians already have done an amazing job of preparing for wildfire season, Pimlott said, and appear to be ready and willing to do more to protect their homes, property and each other.
“This is an area and a community we need to showcase. … You’re a model and example” of living with, adapting to and addressing conditions such as an aging forest with many dying trees, properties clogged with brush and a lack of water. “We’re almost preaching to the choir here.”
“It’s not just talk anymore,” said Gail Robinette, president of the Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors. “We’re actually taking action” to protect the 3,000-acre native stand of Monterey pines and the 6,000 people who live within it.
Pimlott, Legarza, Cal Fire’s county Chief Rob Lewin and others said they have Cambrians’ backs, pledging the full force of local, state and federal fire services to help in case of wildfire on the North Coast.
But in the end, they stressed, fire preparedness and safety come down to each homeowner and property owner taking responsibility for reducing fire risk on his or her own land.
“A community is made up of individual properties,” Pimlott said. One landowner who doesn’t clear a vacant lot or create defensible space around a home will endanger all the other parcels and homes in that neighborhood, even if those property owners have taken the proper steps. That uncleared lot or parcel “is the weak link” in the fire-preparedness scenario, he said.
The keys are public education, individual and agency preparation and action, rigorous enforcement of ordinances and rules, and “a little peer pressure,” Pimlott said with a smile.