Rep. Lois Capps visited Cambria on Thursday to hear from local leaders about the extreme fire danger to the North Coast’s Monterey pine forest and said she would seek a federal disaster declaration that could free up money to help remove dead and dying trees.
Capps, D-Santa Barbara, who sits on the House Natural Resources Committee, said she plans to raise the issue with other members in an attempt to coordinate a regional response to the threat.
She spoke of similar fire danger in the Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California, and of a trip to Montana in which she recalled seeing haze from wildfires that were burning in Washington State.
When she returns to Capitol Hill, Capps said, she plans to ask, “Do we expect any hearings in Natural Resources on what’s been going on in the Western states in terms of fire and drought, and what is FEMA doing in response?”
Capps spent nearly two hours in a meeting at the Cambria Fire Station and taking a tour of the forest on Thursday.
She heard local leaders speak of the gravity of the fire danger and the challenges of dealing with a forest in which an estimated 70 to 90 percent of the trees are dead or dying.
“Conservatively, we’re looking at 20,000 trees” that need to be removed, Cal Fire Chief Robert Lewin told Capps, detailing a problem that goes beyond the huge undertaking of taking the trees out and includes what to do with them after they’re cut down.
“We’re in a pitch canker zone, so we can’t haul (the dead wood) away,” said Dan Turner, business manager of the San Luis Obispo County Fire Safe Council, referring to a fungal disease that affects pine trees. “Our goal is literally to set up a portable sawmill here in town … and use that to create as many consumable products as possible.”
The rest, he said, would be taken to a cogeneration plant in Delano.
Thursday’s meeting was attended by several local leaders, including former county Supervisor Shirley Bianchi, who chairs Cambria’s FireSafe Council Focus Group; Cambria Community Services District President Gail Robinette; Cal Fire Division Chief Alan Peters; and SLO County District 2 Supervisor Bruce Gibson.
Much of Thursday’s discussion focused on the challenges of managing a forest that shares space with a community. In normal circumstances, fire would be part of the forest’s natural cycle; but with residential dwellings built among the pines, fire can spread rapidly. As Capps pointed out, referring to tinder-dry dead trees, “It’s not just the homeowner’s problem; it’s the neighborhood’s problem.”
Capps noted that the issue hit close to home for her, recalling that she nearly had to evacuate when a wildfire burned close to her home in Santa Barbara.
One important area of emphasis, she said, was obtaining funds to help with “pre-disaster mitigation” efforts, such as clearing defensible space and removing dead trees.
Gibson shared similar sentiments, asking, “How do we shift FEMA funds toward hazard mitigation?”
Capps suggested exploring the possibility of issuing a state of emergency at the federal level.
“What I’d like to see, since the governor has declared a state of emergency, if we could declare a federal state of emergency that could free up a lot more resources,” she said. “I’m not sure how feasible that is, but it’s one of the things I want to explore.”
Capps acknowledged that “the bureaucracy is mind-blowing,” but said she and other coastal representatives agreed that something needs to be done.
The question, according to Robinette, was, “How do we get the cooperation with local, with county, with state (agencies)? We need to start removing those trees, and time is of the essence.”