The Cambrian

Grand jury sets fire safety goals for Cambria

A section of Cambria’s Monterey pine forest on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.
A section of Cambria’s Monterey pine forest on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.

This season’s county grand jury has released another report on Cambria’s fire risk, a document that itemizes actions still to be done, but which also notes that the town’s services district and other agencies already have begun to implement some of the recommendations in related reports issued by the 2014-15 jury.

The 2016-17 jury report released Tuesday, March 28, is somberly titled “Is It Five Minutes to Midnight in Cambria: An Update on the Risk of Catastrophic Fire.”

Firefighters say the wet winter has reduced the town’s immediate risk of wildfire, a threat which, after five years of drought, had been deemed critically high by numerous agencies that make those judgments. However, the wet cycle prompts weeds and brush to grow fuller and taller than usual, which subsequently can dry and become a bigger fire risk than usual later in the season.

The drought affected the whole state and caused massive tree die-off in many areas. As the report notes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates “there are currently 102 million dead trees throughout California, with the majority located in the southern and central Sierra Nevada Region.”

In Cambria, fire risk is exacerbated by its 3,200-acre, rare native stand of Monterey pines — tall, shallow-rooted trees with an average lifespan of about 80 to 100 years — many of which are interlaced with homes and neighborhoods.

Many of the area’s pines are dying or dead, due to old age, drought, insect and disease infestation and other causes.

“The area is a combination of urban and forest areas with limited entry and exit points,” the jury said in the report. Narrow streets, small lots and older construction “would enable fire to spread rapidly.”

The report notes that “a serious fire risk has existed in Cambria for many years. Characteristics that make Cambria a highly desirable place to live contribute to this risk. The Monterey pines are emblematic of the area, yet the recent high mortality among these trees, due in part to the recent drought, enables fires to spread rapidly.

“Cambria’s remote location makes it a serene haven, but that remoteness also makes rapid fire response more difficult. And while the narrow, winding roads in many areas create inviting, warm neighborhoods, those same streets make evacuation and emergency-response vehicle access harder and at times impossible.”

Therefore, “eliminating the risk of wildfire is virtually impossible,” the report concluded, and added, “reducing the risk through preparedness and prevention is an ongoing challenge.”

Reaction to the report

Representatives of the Cambria Community Services District responded Monday, March 27, to an advance copy of the report, saying they believe the report is fair.

Greg Sanders, the Board of Directors vice president, and director Mike Thompson serve on the CSD’s ad hoc committee that studies the district’s fire-related topics, including management of the Cambria Fire Department.

“All in all, this is a very good report,” Sanders said by email. “And we are about to embark on a fire-hydrant flushing program, which will satisfy one of the recommendations in the current report.”

Thompson agreed, adding that the report “reflects the fact that the board did much to address the last report.”

Among those actions were: Maintaining CSD management of Cambria Fire Department; using grant money to increase that department’s staffing to four firefighters per shift; buying a new fire engine to replace an outdated one; increasing water-supply reliability by replacing an aging water-storage tank on Fiscalini Ranch, near the Top of the World neighborhood; working with County Planning for a blanket permit to simplify homeowners’ removal of dead trees (about 200 property owners did so under that permit); and working with Community Emergency Response Team and local fire-safety councils to provide evacuation-route maps and improve local awareness of danger, emergency preparedness and Reverse 911 sign-ups.

The jury is one of several agencies and groups that are carefully watching, monitoring, assessing, planning for and seeking solutions to Cambria’s fire risk. Among others concerned about the situation in the small, seaside town are county and state officials, the county Fire Safe Council, the Cambria FireSafe Focus Group, Cambria Fire and Cal Fire and various emergency-services providers, agencies and departments.

Shirley Bianchi, who leads the Focus Group, called the latest jury report “a very well-written document, with excellent, fabulous ideas.” She said the CSD and other agencies already have tackled some of the issues, and others are in the works.

However, one issue the report didn’t address, she said, is where the money will come from to implement those ideas.

“As long as people don’t want to pay for the improvements, through increased taxes or assessments, they’re not going to get those improvements. It’s as simple as that.”

Recommended actions

Among actions that the 2016-17 grand jury report recommends be taken now, as soon as possible or by the end of this year are:

▪  Full fire-hydrant testing to assure proper flow of water for fighting blazes.

▪  Amending the CSD’s fire code to require the removal of dead trees from private property.

▪  Finalizing, approving and implementing a strategic fire plan for Cambria.

▪  Expanding public outreach about Reverse 911 and other emergency notification methods and making sure everybody who should be registered is.

▪  Posting evacuation-route signs to help people get out of town as quickly and safely as possible during emergencies.

▪  Posting “no parking” signs on streets so narrow that it’s difficult for emergency vehicles to get through, and

▪  Removing French broom and other weeds that turn into fire-flashy tinder when dry.

The CSD must respond to the report within 90 days.

An advance copy of the grand jury report was sent March 23 to Jerry Gruber, the district’s general manager.

That day at the CSD Board of Directors’ meeting, Gruber said that firefighters must use a fire-water flow meter so the district can keep accurate records about how much water is used in the testing.

Gruber said in a March 27 email interview he, Fire Chief Bill Hollingsworth and water department supervisor Jason Buhl have to finalize the plan before firefighters can start testing the district’s 365 hydrants. Also, the fire department must come up with a means of notifying those who live close to each hydrant that the testing can produce some sediment at their taps.

In responses to other questions posed by a reporter March 27 about the grand jury report, Gruber replied that the recently adopted CSD fire codes mean the district/fire department can require a landowner to remove dead trees from private property; he believes the CSD can only remove broom and other weeds from its own properties but can require landowners to do the same on their land; and it’s up to the district directors when they want to review the draft strategic fire plan that’s already been prepared.

No parking signs are usually installed by the San Luis Obispo County public works department after the Parking Regulation Code amendments are approved by county supervisors. However, the CSD could request the designations at specific locations.

But, as Bianchi said, “while additional no parking zones are a good idea, who’s going to enforce them?”

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