SLO County is bracing for wildfire — and workers are clearing an evacuation path
Coming up with solutions to the state’s escalating threat of disastrous wildfires has been a multi-agency proposition recently, and that’s been exemplified locally by the Cambria FireSafe Focus Group.
That concern from the participants of the monthly focus groups — ranging from experts, legislators and homeowners — has only been heightened after the rain-dense winter/early spring storms, and an onslaught of stiff spring winds.
It becomes more urgent each year thanks to such catastrophes as the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire, the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the California community of Paradise, demolishing 18,804 structures and killing 86 people.
In the Focus Group meetings, discussions can be wide ranging or micro-specific, such as a recent tip shared by group co-founder Dan Turner: Homeowners should walk around their properties after a windstorm and note the locations where leaves piled up.
“That is where embers could gather” in a wildfire, he said, so be sure to make those areas nonflammable.
One of the most recent think-tank gatherings at Cal Poly is evolving into the first and only West Coast institute that would brainstorm to solve problems in what is known as the wildland-urban interface, where populated areas butt up against and into the forest. Two men involved in planning the institute, Turner (business manager of the county’s Fire Safe Council) and professor Cornelius Nuworsso, already have ties to Cambria and its fire concerns.
Turner, the county’s former fire chief, remains an active participant in the focus group and hazard-mitigation planning for the community. Nuworsso has an $8,000 grant for a pilot program studying evacuation scenarios for the Lodge Hill area of Cambria. The professor’s work is due to be complete this summer.
Turner said in March that the institute would “bring together a lot of disciplines on one campus,” including forest health, community design, building design and construction, landscaping, firefighting, recovery and more. Turner said he believes Cal Poly’s is “the only campus in the country that has all those programs on one campus.”
What are biggest fire concerns?
Wildfire concerns from the governor’s office on down through county and local levels are as widespread as:
• Thicker weed growth triggered by this year’s rainstorms. Cutting and trimming the thickets of weeds and grasses is mandated in many communities, and in Cambria, some people have already begun that work.
• Having so many dying, dead and drying trees in dense forests. Property owners, agencies, PG&E and others have removed many of the dead and hazardous trees, and the county continues to waive some of the permit requirements for those removals in Cambria.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued an emergency proclamation directing Cal Fire to immediately implement projects that were systematically identified as high-priority fuel-reduction projects and other measures to protect over 200 of California’s most wildfire-vulnerable communities and put the state on a path toward long-term wildfire prevention and forest health, according to Cal Fire.
However, none of those projects are in San Luis Obispo County, according to Cal Fire officials, in part because none of the projects in the pipeline here could be completed by the year-end deadline, Alan Peters, Cal Fire’s unit forester for this county, said at the March Focus Group meeting.
• Potential problems when so many homes are built within forested areas and wild lands. Aggressive programs to remove flammables can reduce that risk somewhat, so Cal Fire, Cambria Community Services District and other agencies are doing just that.
Peters said that so far this season, his crews did one day of pile burning and spent six days clearing French broom and removing wind-damaged trees along Cambria Pines Road. He said that, weather permitting, he plans to have the crews do “pile burns” along Highway 1 this month.
• Dangers posed by illegal campsites in the forest and other fire-prone areas. It’s an issue being tracked and attacked by CCSD, county Sheriff’s deputies and others. Last month, Carlos Mendoza, resources/facilities supervisor for CCSD, flagged all the known abandoned camps in the area, he reported in a March 20 email update.
A deputy removed a homeless person from one of the sites. CCSD resources staff and West Coast Tree Service cleaned up some of the homeless camps on the east part of Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.
“The problem was much worse” than Mendoza had previously reported.
He said there were as many as 40 sites, based on what they discovered, some of which were buried deep in the vegetation. In one day, 40 yards of waste was removed, but there were “still many more camps to clean up,” and Mendoza estimates that CCSD may need financial help to finish the job this time.
Meanwhile, community members have been meeting on their own to find ways to help remove the risks and help those without permanent homes.
• Potential for disaster from electrical equipment or when power lines go down, either on their own, during high winds or when falling trees take them out. PG&E sought bankruptcy protection while it restructures in the face of billions of dollars in potential liability from recent wildfires assumed to have been caused by electrical-equipment failures or falling lines.
As part of that process, U.S. District Judge William Alsup said he’ll be closely monitoring PG&E’s tree-trimming this year. Alsup said the firm’s previous efforts to prevent trees from hitting power lines had been “dismal.”
• Escalating effects of climate change, potentially bringing hotter, drier, windier weather during peak fire season.
• How to evacuate safely and efficiently during a disaster. The Focus Group has prepared Cambria-specific evacuation information, and that’s a crucial topic in the 2017 Cambria Hazard Mitigation Plan, available online at www.cambriacsd.org.
• How residents, homeowners and visitors can prepare now for what may happen later. Fuel-reduction work, creating defensible space around the home, “hardening” the structure against fire and embers and training in advance for evacuation are among the recommended actions.
What Cambria is doing
Cambria, with its aging forest of shallow-rooted, native Monterey pines, is an official FireWise community, which means those brainstorming sessions are paying off in terms of town-wide readiness and education, available grants and other benefits. However, local fire experts and homeowners already are worrying about and trying to take actions to make their town safer during the 2019 wildfire season and other emergencies.
Some of the local discussions are focused on subjects as varied as:
• A tentatively scheduled May 18 program on community preparedness sponsored by the Focus Group.
• Some disaster survival and emergency response courses being offered starting April 29 by the Cambria Community Emergency Response Team, and a separate, free FEMA/Department of Homeland Security- funded “search and rescue in community disasters” course on May 15 and 16.
• The difficulties some Cambria homeowners are having in getting fire insurance protection, or being able to afford increasing costs for the policies they were able to buy.
• CCSD has applied for a $100,000 FEMA grant to continue the Cal Poly evacuation studies.
• Grant-funded forest cleanup activities, with some already done in the Leimert area and along Highway 1, and more ahead targeting the end of Cambria Drive and up the left side of the state highway. CCSD has done some of that work on Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, too, along with the homeless-encampment cleanups.
Another area of concern is the corridor from Tin City (Village Lane) up toward the schools; CCSD is finalizing that grant application, with a focus on fuel reduction by eliminating invasive-plant growth and dead and dying trees.
• Improving communication during emergencies, with residents and homeowners encouraged to sign up with Reverse 911 and Nixle systems, but with a reminder that emergency notifications can be interrupted if a cellular system is down due to the emergency.
• Setting up an emergency-preparedness website, work paid for by a community grant from Supervisor Bruce Gibson and sponsored by the county’s Fire Safe Council.
How to be prepared
Two sets of classes are being offered to North Coast homeowners and residents who want to be better prepared for disasters. Hands-on Cambria Community Emergency Rescue Team evening sessions are scheduled on April 29, May 1, 6, 8, 13 and 15. Each class starts at 6 p.m. and runs until about 9:15 p.m.
There is a $30 fee for manuals, handouts and emergency supplies. CERT students learn firefighting and medical skills, how and when to turn off utilities; awareness of hazardous materials and terrorism; light search-and-rescue techniques; and most importantly, self reliance. Register online or request details by emailing your name and phone number to CambriaCERT@gmail.com.
Then on May 15 and 16, Cambria CERT, Cambria Community Services District, FEMA and the National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center will sponsor a free “search and rescue in community disasters” course taught from the perspective of the survivo.. Space is limited, so early sign up is recommended.
The 12-hour course trains individuals to survive a disaster and safely conduct search-and-light-rescue response, aiding their own family and neighbors in the immediate aftermath of a natural catastrophe, technological accident or human-caused incident,” according to information provided by the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium and course sponsors.
For details or to sign up, email your name, email address and phone number to CambriaCERT@gmail.com, with “PER334 Registration” in the email’s subject line.