Supervisors approve Cambria Ranch firebreak

San Luis Obispo County supervisors unanimously supported a 4-mile-long shaded fuel break between Cambria’s northern and eastern boundaries and the heavily forested Cambria Ranch by the Sea.

In their action Tuesday, the supervisors denied an appeal brought against the firebreak project. The supervisors also upheld a permit for the project approved Dec. 16 by the county Planning Department.

If the supervisors’ decision Tuesday isn’t challenged at the California Coastal Commission, Cal Fire could begin the grant-funded work soon to create a 100-foot-wide buffer zone between homes and a large stand of Cambria’s rare native Monterey pines on the 1,465-acre ranch owned by Ralph and Tracy Covell.

A representative of Greenspace-The Cambria Land Trust, which filed the appeal, said the nonprofit likely won’t appeal the supervisors’ decision to the commission. However, coastal commissioners could file the appeal themselves, as could an individual or another group.

The forest, one of three such native stands of Monterey pines on the U.S. mainland and five in the world, is protected by a conservation easement held by The Nature Conservancy, which fully supports the firebreak project.

Greenspace-The Cambria Land Trust filed the appeal because of concerns including the width of the firebreak and the way it would be cleared, with much of the work done by a small tractor called a masticator.

The nonprofit’s representatives stressed during the hearing that Greenspace “is not against the project at all,” said Richard Hawley, executive director, “It’s not the fuel break. It’s how it’s being done.”

Cal Fire foresters say that vegetation in the proposed firebreak area is so dense that it’s making the forest unhealthy and is increasing fire danger.

Commission concerns

Coastal Commission staff is already on record as sharing some of Greenspace’s concerns, including the use of the masticator and the fuel break’s width.

Dan Carl, the commission’s Central Coast District manager, expects the project will be appealed to his agency.

He said that if that happens, it could take two hearings for commissioners to reach a final decision: one to establish whether they find “substantial issue” with concerns expressed in the appeal, and a second for a full airing of the project details and appeal objections. There could be a gap of several months between the two meetings — and the first would not occur until April or May.

All that may take too long for the project, which is under a deadline with the contractor, according to Rob Lewin, chief of County/Cal Fire in San Luis Obispo County.

Pacific Firewood and Lumber of Watsonville is the firm hired to do the job. The $39,400 contract expires May 30. Lewin said he would rebid the project if work could not start by then because the community supports the clearing.

The fuel break

The project would remove up to 10,000 trees and seedlings at a diameter 10 inches or less about 4 feet above the ground, along with some brush, shrubs and downed and diseased vegetation.

The fire agency’s final report on the project stressed that “a fully intact forest will be retained ... including trees of all sizes.” The thinned-out forest would include pines and oaks from seedlings to pole-size trees, and mature shrubs such as toyon and manzanita.