Imagine receiving an urgent order to evacuate your home during a wildfire.
Flames burn on the side of a single access road, and fire engines are trying to get in as your neighbors are trying to get out.
“It’s confusing, it’s highly emotional, people aren’t always thinking and maybe they’re driving too fast. We don’t want to have an incident within an incident. We want to get everybody out and evacuate and be able to access the fire safely,” said Ted Mathiesen, a Cal Fire defensive space inspector.
To increase the chance of safe escape, crews are working in targeted areas of San Luis Obispo County to remove brush and tree limbs from the sides of what would be evacuation routes during significant wildfire.
The goal of the prevention and preparation work is twofold: to reduce fuel for fire and to increase the width of the road so there’s a better chance that everyone can get out safely if a fire does erupt.
Wildfire risk is high
The work is funded with grants from PG&E and the California Climate Investment Program, including money from the state’s cap-and-trade program, and it’s becoming more important.
As monstrous fires blast burning embers across California communities, the chance of a large wildfire on the Central Coast is greater than normal this year due to high temperatures and low moisture levels.
Communities in and around Cambria, Lake Nacimiento, Nipomo, Santa Margarita and areas west of Atascadero are some of those at the greatest risk.
“We’re doing projects all over the county,” said Dan Turner, business manager of the San Luis Obispo County Fire Safe Council, which administers the projects.
The all-volunteer group was recently awarded the largest fire prevention grant it’s ever received for $3.9 million.
“If we can prevent the fire from occurring, that’s the ultimate goal. That costs nothing, no damage, nobody’s displaced. The next step is (with) those you can’t or don’t prevent, (to) mitigate the consequences of fire so it’s not as damaging,” Turner said.
Residents are thankful
Nearby residents who’ve anxiously watched the sky fill with smoke from fires close by are grateful the work is underway.
Cambria is a particular concern for fire officials because of the large stands of native Monterey pines, many of which have been ravaged by drought and bark beetles.
The result is a town full of homes built in a forest that could turn to kindling under the right conditions. Overgrown brush encroaching on roadways only exacerbates the situation.
On Wednesday, Cambria resident Patty Fox stopped to thank a crew working to clear one primary escape route in the town.
The Mexican and Honduran men working in the country on H2B visas had finished a job clearing brush on Old Morro Creek Road west of Atascadero before starting on french broom intermingled with poison oak alongside Cambria Pines Road.
Hundreds of residents, many elderly, rely on that single road for access to Highway 1.
Clearing the dense foliage with hand tools and chainsaws is expected to widen the road opening by about 30 feet. Unless there is a crown fire in the forest canopy or a downed tree, the road should be clear for evacuation.
“We’re very happy to see this,” Fox said. “Because of the condition of the forest and the fire danger, a lot of the residents are nervous. To see something like this makes me feel safer.”