Red tape will delay Cambria firebreak project

A firebreak project in Cambria likely will have to go through the county permitting process and possibly state Coastal Commission review — a time-consuming procedure that will certainly delay and possibly kill a plan intended to protect the town from a potentially devastating wildfire.

Such a permit requirement and review could also set a precedent for firebreaks in the coastal zone, potentially having a chilling effect on any Cal Fire firebreak projects along the state’s coast, county 2nd District Supervisor Brice Gibson and Cambria landowner Ralph Covell told the North Coast Advisory Council on Wednesday.

The state coastal zone varies in width from several hundred feet in highly urbanized areas up to five miles in rural areas, including the coast north of Estero Bay in San Luis Obispo County.

Cal Fire’s plan calls for creating a 4-mile-long, 100-foot-wide firebreak covering 50 acres along the north side of Cambria between residential areas and undeveloped Monterey pine forest.

Cal Fire had hoped to complete work this fall. Depending on weather and other conditions, it’s estimated the work will take 20 to 100 working days to complete.

Cal Fire is working with the county on a coastal development permit. CalFire Forester Alan Peters said Thursday the agency is still “evaluating if the project can fall under California Board of Forestry regulations that allow a fuel-reduction project without a coastal development permit in a Monterey pine forest. We will know in a few days if that is possible.”

County planners say the permit will be necessary if the firebreak is to be cleared of underbrush and small plants by hand crews and a device known as a masticator, an SUV-sized tractor fitted with a mechanical chopping arm.

Most of the land involved, 48 acres, is on the 1,465-acre Cambria Pines By the Sea Ranch, owned by Ralph and Tracy Covell. The ranch is thick with Monterey pines protected by a conservation easement held by The Nature Conservancy. The conservancy participated in preparation of the firebreak plan and backs it, as do the Covells.Trees larger than 10 inches in diameter at about 5 feet in height would be left in the firebreak; nearly all other vegetation would be removed.

Gibson told the council at a meeting in Cambria on Wednesday that the Coastal Commission requires the permit. If the county approves the permit, its approval can be appealed to the state commission.

“This question of whether you need a coastal development permit (for firebreaks) will be elevated to another level, will affect the entire coastal zone,” Gibson said. “It’s a big deal to both agencies.”

He said he’d be following the process closely, because it could be precedent setting.

Cal Fire’s Peters said the clearing work can’t be done in the wet season and a $39,240 contract with Pacific Firewood & Lumber of Watsonville for the project expires May 30. Grant funding from the U.S. Forest Service Hazardous Fuels Treatment program expires June 30, 2013.

Peters said that with today’s limited market for grants, “this could be a one-time opportunity.” He also said, “We do not know what impact the Coastal Act will have on future fuel reduction projects” in that zone.

“This project provides a strategic shaded fuel break that uses good forest practices and ensures good forest health,” County/Cal Fire Chief Rob Lewin wrote in an email interview with The Tribune. “The proposed masticator has no more environmental impact than a crew cutting, chipping and burning and is less disruptive to the neighborhood.”

He added, “We would be remiss in our responsibilities if we did not bring this project forward. Cambria has a clear fire threat, and it is our job to try to reduce that threat.”

Lewin wrote that if permit-related delays prevent the firebreak work this year, the community still wants the work to go forward. “We will continue to work on this project based on the availability of future funding. We need to try to protect Cambria from a wildfire.”