The Cambrian

Cambrians were concerned about 400 piles of forest debris to be burned. Then it rained

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

A Cal Fire plan to burn hundreds of piles of woody forest debris in and near the Cambria forest of rare native Monterey pines appears to have gone off without a hitch.

The plan had drawn yelps of fear and angry protest from people who live nearby, especially on social media, email threads and at a quickly organized neighborhood meeting on Buckley Road and Cambria Drive on Nov. 17. Area residents there said they felt a previous burning event wasn’t well enough supervised or controlled, that Cal Fire hadn’t communicated well enough to people in the area that the proposed future burning was ill advised and potentially unsafe, and that other methods had to be better.

For the next couple of weeks after the objections were lodged, Greg Alex, Cal Fire’s North Coast battalion chief, and Unit Forester Alan Peters stepped up communications, most notably in emailed replies to people who signed up at the streetside meeting, requesting more frequent updates.

The Cal Fire officials explained that the cost of the other methods was too high for the plan’s grant-funded budget and that burning the debris is still the preferred “best management” practice. They laid out in detail how the burning would happen, what precautions would be taken, who would be monitoring the piles overnight, how area residents could participate in that monitoring and other details.

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At right, Dan Turner of the county Fire Safe Council and Greg Alex, Cal Fire’s North Coast battalion chief, address a crowd of about 50 Cambria neighbors concerned about fire safety and the agency’s practice of burning piles of collected forest flammables on site. The street-side meeting was held Nov. 17. Kathe Tanner ktanner@thetribunenews.com

Then, with impeccable timing, the rain arrived.

On Dec. 4, crews put the plan into action. By the end of Dec. 5, “they were basically done in the Leimert area,” Peters said.

Conditions had been about as close to ideal as they ever get, he said.

“It sprinkled on Tuesday, rained Tuesday night, and not so much on Wednesday. It rained just enough at night, and previously, so there was virtually no risk of fire spread,” Peters said. “(Because of that) we didn’t have any safety concerns. Our main concern was about smoke dispersal, which behaved just fine.”

And the reaction from residents? “Several dozen people stopped by and gave us a ‘thumbs-up’ as we were doing the work,” he said.

“We got lots of great email from Cambrians thanking us for our efforts,” Alex said Dec. 11.

Emails in the ongoing threads also seemed favorable. One said in response to Alex’s after-the-burn report, “Thanks for the update and safe operation!” And another man, who previously had been critical, wrote “Great job. Such efficiency. Much appreciated.”

Peters explained that “there are still a couple of hundred piles” stacked up on hillside terraces along Highway 1 and Santa Rosa Creek.

He hopes those burns can be done by a new type of hand crew — recently hired — which would use those piles as a live-fire training maneuver, under the guidance and direction of experienced crew members.

Alex said his crews have been burning slash piles that were stacked up around Rocky Butte after the Chimney Fire. Crews also have been creating more piles in the Leimert area, “coming back through and cutting out more dead trees. Cut, pile, burn, repeat is the process. I expect we will be back at it in January.”

Peters said the county FireSafe Council has to decide how best to spend what’s left on the existing grant and a new grant, which together are providing about $2 million to spend just on projects to help make Cambria’s forest, structures and residents more fire safe.

People who would like to have input on that and other concerns about fire and other emergencies on the North Coast can attend the Cambria FireSafe Focus Group meeting at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 9, in the Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St.

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