The Cambrian

Cambria has 400 piles of forest debris waiting to be burned. That has residents worried

SLO County is bracing for wildfire — and workers are clearing an evacuation path

Workers remove vegetation along the side of Cambria Pines Road in Cambria as part of a Cal Fire's wildfire management program. The program in SLO County is paid for through funds from PG&E
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Workers remove vegetation along the side of Cambria Pines Road in Cambria as part of a Cal Fire's wildfire management program. The program in SLO County is paid for through funds from PG&E

With images of Paradise and the Camp Fire on their minds, some Cambria residents are worried about Cal Fire’s plans to burn 400 piles of forest debris around town.

About 50 residents brought their “in-their-own-backyards” fire concerns to a quickly organized street-side meeting with Cal Fire and county Fire Safe Council representatives Nov. 17.

Some organizers and attendees wanted Cal Fire to stop their plans to burn the approximately 400 piles of gathered forest debris that are still stacked in and around the forest, especially in the PineKnolls and Leimert neighborhoods. (The meeting was held before the rains began Nov. 21.)

Hired crews paid with grant funds had pulled from the roadside and the forest many invasive French broom plants that were up to 10 feet tall, highly flammable and hard to eradicate.

The crews also cut up dead trees, “limbed up” healthy trees, thinned out areas packed with too many trees and gathered the flammables into big stacks, waiting for the right weather and other conditions for burning the piles.

That’s the preferred method of disposal, or “best management practice” for this project, according to Cal Fire’s licensed forester, said Dan Turner, the council’s business manager, and Greg Alex, Cal Fire’s North Coast battalion chief. Turner and Alex were at the meeting to discuss the issues with the neighbors.

Turner said fire danger in those neighborhoods “is significantly less than it was three months ago,” before the work was done. Fire Safe representatives were on site every day work was underway.

Moving the piles would be expensive and tends to spread French broom seeds, which remain viable for up to 10 years, he said.

While some attendees expressed their thanks for the Cal Fire work, some in the crowd appeared to be fearful and frightened about the potential, and about how previous burning sessions were handled, including heavy smoke, piles of ashes that smoldered all night and one that reportedly flamed up the next morning.

Cal Fire crews drove by overnight to check on the ash piles, Alex said, but didn’t stay with them. He explained that’s standard protocol once the fires were extinguished, although some smoldering is typical.

Similarities to Paradise

More than one person mentioned the similarities between the Cambria area and Paradise, where a catastrophic wildfire that, by Thanksgiving weekend, had killed 85 people, leveled the town and destroyed almost 14,000 homes, more than 500 businesses and more than 4,200 other structures.

“The Paradise disaster has motivated every community in California,” resident Gerry Main said.

He advised the Cal Fire representatives to “take advantage of our terror” to put new policies in place and encourage residents to be better prepared for wildfire.

Everybody observed a moment of silence in remembrance of those who died in the Paradise and Southern California fires this fall.

Cambrians are already more wildfire-aware than most Californians, Turner said, thanks in part to efforts of the Cambria FireSafe Focus Group.

Under its auspices, Cambria has earned the “Firewise” designation, and is “the largest Firewise community in California,” Turner added.

He said that Michael Walsh, the Focus Group’s representative to the Fire Safe Council, organized the Nov. 17 meeting, opting for a casual, street-side, neighborhood gathering sooner rather than waiting until mid-December or later, when a townhall meeting could be arranged.

But the North Coast community still has serious fire-related problems, he said, including one it shares with Paradise: “Very limited evacuation routes.”

Many of those killed in the Paradise “Camp Fire” were trying to escape from burning areas.

Cal Fire did the grant-funded cleanup in Cambria to protect a primary evacuation route (Cambria Pines Road and Buckley Drive), Turner said, work that vastly improved drivers’ line of sight, especially at night.

He said that, before the clearing was done, “in a fire, this roadway would not have been survivable.”

Upset residents

Some area residents were upset about the burn piles and demanded that the protocol be changed so burns weren’t done in the forest itself.

Resident Glynda Hoskins had brought up the issue at the Nov. 14 Focus Group meeting and the Nov. 15 Cambria Community Services District meeting, expressing concerns that she and her neighbors have about the project and the process.

At the street-side neighborhood meeting, she and others urged Cal Fire to move all the piles, and some people even said they’d donate toward having the removal done.

Other suggested moving piles that are underneath the trees, or using burn cages, “curtain burners” or a chipper.

Turner and Alex promised that, before more burning was done, they would consult again with the licensed Cal Fire forester whose job it is to determine which the best management practices are for handling the fire-fuel stacks.

“We’re open to any and all options,” Turner said. “We do care. Everybody involved cares. And we won’t put the community at risk.”

They also pledged to organize a full community meeting in early 2019, with the topics to include these issues and a new $1.8 million grant dedicated to making Cambria more fire resistant.

As resident and meeting attendee Paul Nugent concluded later on social media, “This particular situation is not ideal, but it’s better than where we would have been if nothing had been done. We have an entire community to think about as well as an entire state, and the funding for fire mitigation has not been in place to eliminate this risk in years past … hopefully as it becomes more available, we will see better practices and systems used.”

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