Ever since a June 16 fire brought to the forefront the problem of illegal encampments tucked in the Cambria forest, officials and volunteers have been searching for and finding more of those unauthorized campsites and ramshackle living areas.
But the searchers know there are more camps they haven’t yet located.
Sheriff’s Cmdr. James Taylor told directors of the Cambria Community Services District June 25 that his deputies have issued notices to residents of three illegal encampments along (but out of sight of) Highway 1, telling the people therein that they have 72 hours to leave those areas on which they have no rights to camp.
One of those encampments was where the June 16 fire began.
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It’s the extreme fire danger in the drought-ridden, 3,000-acre forest that has brought the encampment issue out of the shadows of concern about the homeless for whom there are few, if any, options on the North Coast.
For now, fire prevention is trumping the homeless issue, according to authorities.
“We can’t turn a blind eye to them camping in the creeks” and other areas any more, Taylor said. “We’ll try to get to all of them, get help for those who want help and anyone who doesn’t want help, we’ll move them along.”
See something, say something
Law enforcers and others are searching for more of the sites, Taylor said, and he’s establishing teams of deputies to survey the area. “But we need public help in identifying the locations.”
Taylor and others have appealed to members of the public to watch for the illegal campsites, but they stress that people should notify officials about the locations, rather than trying to make contact with the campers themselves.
The deputies will then serve eviction notices.
However, getting the campers to leave their outdoor habitats won’t solve all the related problems, Taylor and others warned. Some of those issues include finding all other campsites that haven’t yet been identified, disposing of the mounds of trash left behind, restoring the habitat where the campsites were, and trying to scope out where the displaced campers might set up next.
As Dylan Theobald, stewardship manager for Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County said simply at the June 25 CCSD meeting, “if you see something, say something.” Tell law enforcers, firefighters, CCSD officials or other authorities who have the clout to do something about the situation.
At a June 24 meeting of the Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group, volunteer Ken Persinger showed participants photographs of some illegal campsites he’d found on hikes along a series of terraces that Caltrans apparently cut into the hillsides along Highway 1 years ago.
He said the Caltrans right-of-way area “goes to the top of the hill.”
Those terraces now are packed with dense non-native pine thickets of invasive French broom, jubata grass and trees, which shield the illegal campsites from view and create a “huge fire potential,” Persinger said.
Some of the areas are pretty precipitous, the professional reforestation tree planter said. “It’s easy to slip. Some areas are so steep, I had a really hard time getting down.
“If you’re camping on a steep hillside, there’s a tendency to roll down, which makes it hard to sleep. A nice flat spot (like a terraced area) makes a great campsite, with brush to shield you from view and a level place to sleep.”
One site that appeared to be abandoned included “30 empty fuel canisters,” he said. Others were nothing more than tents tucked into the brush, sometimes within a few feet of the highway itself. “They’re very well camouflaged.”
Other fiire-protection updates
Meanwhile, Cal Fire continues its inspections of defensible space around Cambria structures, and Cambria Fire Department personnel were to have begun on July 1 their inspections of weed-abatement work required on vacant properties. This year, both agencies also are issuing requirements or recommendations about removals of dead trees, due to the fire danger.
Cal Fire has inspected about 2,500 residences, and made about 500 second visits, Unit Forester Alan Peters told CCSD directors June 25.
He said most of the funds in a $75,000 grant PG&E gave recently to the county’s Fire Safe Council will go toward removing 190 hazardous trees he’d flagged for removal on Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.
The council has other Cambria-oriented grant applications in the works and paid $10,000 for a helicopter dip tank that may be installed near CCSD’s emergency water-supply project.
A portable weather station to be installed soon on state park property will help predict dangerous “red-flag weather conditions,” when there’s high fire danger due to low humidity and high temperatures.