Cal Fire set to start new firebreaks

Cal Fire officials hope to start in the fall on the first of several projects around San Luis Obispo County to create firebreaks that would help protect communities and local landmarks from brush fires.

According to plans laid out by Cal Fire, the first of these would be four miles of 100-foot-wide, shaded firebreak designed to help protect Cambria, which is surrounded by forest and has some of the highest fire danger in the county.

A similar project is planned for the west Atascadero/Toro Creek area. Hand crew firebreaks are also planned for Los Osos and Oak Shores at Nacimiento Lake.

Burning of vegetation fuel piles is scheduled north of Diablo Canyon, east of Pismo Beach, in the Huasna Valley and in the Las Tablas area south of Nacimiento.

Cambria’s firebreak would run from near the unincorporated coastal community’s East Village to the Cambria Cemetery, encircle the cemetery’s east side, and continue northwest along the northeast side of Cambria Pines Road in the Leimert residential area. A second leg of firebreak is planned along three other residential areas and would connect with the other firebreak at the south side of the cemetery.

About 48 acres of the firebreak would be on the 1,465-acre Cambria Pines By the Sea Ranch, owned by Ralph and Tracy Covell. The Nature Conservancy has a conservation easement over most of the ranch.In a shaded firebreak, large trees are left growing but the understory is largely cleared of flammables. Trees 10 inches or larger in diameter at about 5 feet above ground would be left.

Smaller trees, foliage and downed trees would be removed by a mechanical device known as a masticator, a tractor-like unit with a long arm and cutting claw that chews through brush and small trees.

When hand crews do the clearing, foliage is chipped, lopped into small pieces and scattered, or piled up and burned.

The state project in Cambria is funded primarily through a U.S. Forest Service grant to reduce hazardous fuels. The mastication will cost just over $39,000, according to Cal Fire. The cost of hand crew work has not been determined.

It’s expected the firebreak would need to be maintained every five to 10 years.

The firebreaks are part of a larger forest management plan for the property, according to Scott Butterfield of the conservancy.

“The shaded fuel firebreaks and other recommendations and prescriptions of the forest management plan were a result of an extensive scientific planning process that included input from registered forest professionals, Monterey pine forest experts, fire management experts/professionals, professional ecologists and interested Cambria community members,” Butterfield wrote in an email to The Tribune.

Another two acres of the project are on 14-acre Camp Yeager on Ashby Lane on Happy Hill.

The total project area of about 50 acres is about 2 percent of “approximately 2,300 acres of undeveloped pine forest in the Cambria area,” the report says.

The project is important, Cambria Fire Department Chief Mark Miller said, because the intersection of the Covell ranch and urban Cambria “is the biggest wildland-urban interface we have. It’s upwind of us” and has large amounts of fuel for fires within the forested area.

“It’s the biggest issue we have from a fire-safety standpoint,” Miller said, one that was “identified a long time ago for a shaded firebreak.” He stressed that, “this is not a scorched-earth plan.”

One person who has reservations about the plan is Rick Hawley. He is executive director of Greenspace — The Cambria Land Trust, but spoke on his own behalf.

“Considering this would be 50 acres of understory removal, the mitigation certainly seems shy for the destruction that will be done,” he said. “As a founding member of the San Luis Obispo County Firesafe Council and a board member for 11 years, I’ve gone through a lot of these things,” he added. “I can definitely see the need for some fuel reduction there, but have not seen any findings that justify the width and breadth of this particular project.”

On Aug. 29, Cal Fire released an environmental report of the type used when a project will not have a significant impact or when impacts can be reduced “to a less-than-significant level.”

Public comment on the report will be accepted through Oct. 10. In its report, Cal Fire says work could be completed this fall, taking anywhere from 20 to 100 working days. Cal Fire will make a decision at its Sacramento headquarters on accepting the report after reviewing comments, probably in mid-October.

Cambria’s native stand of Monterey pines is one of only five in the world. The forest is listed as “critically imperiled” by the state Department of Fish and Game.

In the project area, as many of the trees have reached maturity and died, they’ve turned into snags and downed material, which provide ready fodder for fires.

The forest in the project area, according to the Cal Fire report, “is a dense, overstocked, unhealthy pine forest.” After the project, it says, “the end result visually will be a thinned pine forest with well-spaced (approximately 12-15 feet between trees) stand made up of the largest, healthiest, best-formed trees and shrubs available. Overall forest health in the treated areas is expected to improve as a result of this project.”

The greater threat to the forest, the report says, “is from a catastrophic fire that would sweep through the area and kill all or most of the pines in the forest.”