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County panel seeks solutions to Cambria's endangered pine forest

A drive up Bridge Street from East Village reveals trees in various stages of growth, and death. Some are entirely bare, while other formerly green branches have turned brown.
A drive up Bridge Street from East Village reveals trees in various stages of growth, and death. Some are entirely bare, while other formerly green branches have turned brown. sprovost@thetribunenews.com

Estimated mortality rates for Cambria’s native stand of Monterey pine forest have risen as high as 80 or 90 percent in some areas, the latest surveys find.

What can be done to stop it?

That’s a topic to be discussed when the county Fire Safe Council meets in Cambria on Wednesday. Council members want to hear about and discuss the critical condition of Cambria’s forest, which is being substantially diminished and threatened by drought, disease and bug infestations.

The public is encouraged to attend the meeting, which will include a presentation about the drought and the forest’s extreme fire conditions. Fire-prevention and resource management experts will use a panel-discussion format to hear from the public, review information and answer questions.

“I’ve watched this forest for 45 years, and conditions are as bad as I’ve ever seen them,” said Dan Turner, retired county fire chief and the council’s business manager. “The prognosis doesn’t look good. The forest is dying rapidly.”

Fire Safe members and others recently attended presentations given by Cal Poly fire ecology students. The students had studied the forest, according to Mark Miller, chief of the Cambria Fire Department, who said some of the studies’ conclusions were alarming. Previous forest-mortality estimates, which had identified a possible loss of 40 percent of the forest, are now as high as 80 to 90 percent in some areas, according to recent Cal Fire spot surveys.

The worried fire chief said, “It doesn’t take a forester to figure out this is a really volatile situation.”

Fire Safe Council members are among the many who are deeply concerned about increased fire danger that the next year of possible drought may bring to Cambria, as dying and dead trees and brush become fuel for wildfires and so-called “interface” blazes, where homes meet and intermingle with the forest.

It’s a worry that’s been discussed many times at meetings of the Cambria Community Services District, Fire Safe Council, Cambria Forest Committee, Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve (FFRP), Greenspace — The Cambria Land Trust and other groups.

It’s been suggested frequently that the CCSD or another local group host a fire-awareness/forest management meeting to inform the public about the potentially critical situation, but no date has been set for such a meeting.

A Cambria Forest Management Plan exists, but money has never been allocated to implement the measures it outlines.

In such lean financial times, there aren’t a lot of options, Miller said, and the solution may be “nothing short of going to FEMA,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is an action the Cal Poly presenters recommended.

Cal Fire, Fire Safe Council, FFRP, the forest committee, Greenspace, Beautify Cambria and Cambria Fire have banded together to prepare a series of grant requests worth about $3 million.

An application for a $460,000 grant made it through the first cut and is being reviewed for the final decision, Turner said. Decisions on the others haven’t been announced yet. However, to preserve the forest that’s such an icon of the North Coast landscape, Turner said, the public must be involved in the process.

IF YOU WANT TO GO

What: San Luis Obispo County Fire Safe Council 

When: 9 a.m. Wednesday

Where: Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St., Cambria.

Details: The meeting will be streamed live and videotaped to view later, both on AGP/SLO-Span, Channel 21.

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