The Cambrian

'We're getting about 5 ignitions per day': Officials gear up for North Coast fire season

Thomas Fire smoke as seen from Cambria on Sunday, December 10, 2017.
Thomas Fire smoke as seen from Cambria on Sunday, December 10, 2017.

North Coast fire officials and property owners are gearing up for a busy fire season — and evidence of that is everywhere.

Some native grasses and weeds in the area are head high. Previously green hills seemed to turn brown overnight. Illegal fireworks are an annual threat in Cambria, a community built within an aging forest.

And the sounds of weed-whacking abound as property owners and landscaping contractors race to meet state and local weed-abatement requirements.

Greg Alex, Cal Fire’s North Coast Battalion Chief, told the Cambria FireSafe Focus Group on June 14 that “we’re getting about five ignitions a day” for grass fires and wildfires in San Luis Obispo County, with at least one “extended attack” fire a day.

“This is normal fire behavior for September, not now,” he said.

Cal Fire reported a number of fires within the first two weeks of June. Small blazes have broken out near Lake Nacimiento and other North County areas, near Highway 1 in Cayucos, at the San Luis Obispo gun range and “in nearly every corner of the county,” Cal Fire spokesman Chris Elms said Tuesday, June 26.

“We are still in a drought situation,” Alex said.

Additional risk

On the North Coast, the dead-brush-and-trees problem has only improved in the areas where crews have completed brush reduction, proscribed burns and fuel-break clearing, Alex said.

“While Cambria has done a tremendous job clearing this dead fuel from its community, we will need to continue this work for years,” he added. “Another concerning issue for us is that the standing dead pines are rotting from the inside out. When these trees are exposed to fire and wind (the trees) create a life hazard for the public and fire crews working around them.”

Cal Fire has burned about 20 huge piles of leftover logs already this year, especially in the area around Rocky Butte, “to protect the infrastructure there,” Alex said.

The butte houses critical emergency-communication equipment that improves the ability for most first responders to stay in touch with dispatchers and each other.

There were more than 130 log piles to begin with, Alex said, but it’s too risky to continue burning them now. Crews will wait until rainy season to resume the work.

Cal Fire’s Cambria station (Station 10) is staffed daily with a fire captain and two professional firefighters, Alex said, and each station has an engine in it. If that crew is called out of town to help battle a blaze elsewhere, restaffing the Cambria station is “high on our move-up-and-cover assignment priority,” he said.

When that happens, he said, “95 percent of the time, we have the station covered within an hour.”

Efforts will be further taxed when on July 1 Cambria Fire will have three fewer firefighters on staff as Ian Van Weerden Poelman, Ben Shank and Aaron Hunt are laid off because Measure A-18 failed on June 5. Their jobs had been funded by a short-term grant; had the ballot measure received two-thirds of the vote, the fire tax would have covered the cost to keep them on staff.

That means Cambria Fire will respond to calls with two firefighters instead of three.

Fire Captain Emily Torlano described the situation in a post-election email to the firefighters, saying there’s considerable additional risk in “down-staffing our fire engine in the middle of fire season … with the current drought conditions, 65-percent forest mortality … predicted extreme and never-before-seen fire behavior, and knowing the difficult egress/ingress (in the many) three-story, stilt-construction, wood-frame houses” that are clustered across Cambria’s hills, on its narrow streets and within the Monterey pine forest.

Weed abatement

In a strange twist of governmental regulations, Cal Fire inspects defensible-space clearing around homes while Cambria Fire Department inspects vacant parcels of land. However, Cal Fire has primary responsibility to fight open-land fires, while Cambria Fire is “first out” for structure fires.

Alex estimated that Station 10 has “one of the largest inspection workloads in the county,” which he categorized as being “over 500 inspections … every home from Harmony to San Simeon.”

State law requires that flammables be removed or reduced within 100 feet around any structure. Actions homeowners take now can make a big difference in whether their houses and other structures can survive a fire, Cal Fire says.

For instance, Cal Fire suggests making sure mesh screening is intact and secure on vents and chimney/stove-pipe openings. Regularly verify that the roof and rain gutters are cleaned out. Can a fire engine can get to your home? Is your address number legible from the street, even at night?

Remove all dead vegetation and thin out thick shrubs and trees to create a separation between them. Remove low tree branches and prune or remove shrubs under the tree — fire will blaze through them to get to the tree’s crown, where the blaze will spread more rapidly. Only use a mower before 10 a.m., and make sure your car isn’t dragging any metal beneath it.

The Cambria Community Services District notified owners of 1,994 parcels of vacant land on April 20 that that dry grass, stubble, brush, litter and other flammable materials be cleared by July 15 to complete their required weed-abatement chores.

After that, the district’s contractor, Mike Rice Landscaping, will clear those lots and the district will bill the homeowner for costs and administrative charges. If the bill isn’t paid on time, those charges and an additional fee will be placed on the property’s tax bill.

For other suggestions and details about the requirements, go to