Travel the mile or so along Highway 1 between Cambria’s Burton and Cambria drives, and you might see areas of turf you haven’t seen before from the road — or at least not for a long time.
Forest-clearing work has opened up vistas that had been blocked by overgrowth, weeds, invasive plants and wood from fallen and dead trees.
The grant-funded projects includes clearing done on various Cambria sites, including the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, Covell Ranch and the Leimert neighborhood.
Officials said fire safety was the primary reason for the clean-up work, but it also provided the opportunity to locate several illegal homeless encampments. When those camps are in dense forest, the potential for fire surges, according to officials.
However, the clean-up work has raised some concerns from forest enthusiasts, according to a letter sent to the Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group by Crosby Swartz, president of the Cambria Forest Committee. Some people fear the projects may be exceeding the goals of the original contract, that too much is being removed from the forest floor, that erosion could result during the rainy season and that invasive plants could take over where native plants once grew.
Many trees in Cambria’s rare stand of native Monterey pines (one of three on the U.S. mainland and five in the world) are at or near the end of their lifespan. Dead and dying pines, oaks and other trees increase the danger of forest and brush fire, as do dry weeds and grasses. With so many structures built in and around that potential fire fuel, the risk to homes and human life rises dramatically.
Clearing work funded from grant
The work that was done along Highway 1 was part of a $1.8 million grant received by the County Fire Safe Council to work on removing dead and dying Monterey pine trees along the Central Coast, according to Dave Pierson, president of the Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors and the Focus Group.
The work already done was coordinated with the Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch and the CCSD, he said, which manages the ranch and holds title to much of the land near the highway.
Cal Fire also coordinated with Caltrans to do work in the highway right-of-way.
A second grant covers work to be done through 2022, with an emphasis on the east and west sides of Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. Pierson said the county’s Fire Safe Council coordinates the work and relies on the “expertise of Alan Peters,” a licensed professional Cal Fire unit forester who oversees North Coast projects.
Peters told Cambria’s Focus Group on Sept. 18 that two goals inform their work: reducing fire danger and the ongoing management of healthy forest lands.
He said in an Oct. 11 email interview that “work is completed for now on Fiscalini and will continue on Covell, consisting of French broom and dead/dying tree removal. Additional work may be conducted this year in Liemert, but the details are not yet determined. Burning of French broom piles in all project areas will be conducted after we have received some rainfall.”
Peters reported to the Focus Group that a major focus for the projects has been eradicating the troublesome broom, which is pulled, stacked and, when appropriate, burned, with follow-up treatment over several years.
Round-up, other clearing methods used
Other treatment methods have been tested, including Round-up, Garlon and vinegar. Each treatment has its own set of problems and effectiveness rates. According to Dan Turner, manager of the Fire Safe Council, Round-up is most effective, but Garlon is selective and doesn’t harm new pine seedlings.
According to the meeting’s minutes, Peters said the focus is on trimming undergrowth to 1 foot in height and removing ladder fuels so as to create a 4-to-6-foot separation from the understory. He said plants are trimmed, not pulled (other than invasive species such as eucalyptus, pampas grass and French broom, which were removed).
Pierson said in his email that the work has to consider numerous issues and that “a best compromise is always the goal.”
The issues considered include:
▪ The health of the forest.
▪ The fire hazards associated with the under-growth and dead and dying trees.
▪ The proximity of housing.
▪ The need to remove invasive plants that are high fire risk (i.e. French broom).
▪ The native fauna and flora that are present in the areas and which should be protected.
Pierson said homeless camps are not a primary consideration for the contract work, although “the campfires they occasionally use are probably the biggest fire risk we have in Cambria.”
Peters said Cal Fire will continue to monitor cleared areas, checking for erosion and regrowth. This winter, they will work with Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch crews to do plantings of seedlings to supplement natural regeneration.