As firefighters continued battling the Cuesta Fire near Santa Margarita on Tuesday and other blazes across the state and the West, a blanket permit — which would provide to Cambria property owners an easier route for getting permission to remove dead trees — is still in inter-agency limbo, months after it was first proposed.
The Cambria Community Services District and the county have been wrangling over a liability clause in the county’s proposed emergency permit: The district doesn’t want to accept liability for trees being removed on private property, and the county won’t accept the agreement without it.
In the interim, county Planning Director James Bergman has prepared a draft letter that would allow residents to apply for the emergency removals without going through a “land-use authorization” process that takes longer, costs more and could, en masse, trigger concern from the California Coastal Commission, according to some who have spoken at a series of recent public meetings.
Jerry Gruber, the CSD’s general manager, said Monday, “on the flip side, from what I’ve heard from Chief Rob Lewin, there seems to be a real willingness on part of Cambrians to go down to county and apply for their ‘permits.’ ” Lewin is interim chief of the Cambria Fire Department, as well as chief of Cal Fire and county fire crews.
Lewin told the Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group on Aug. 12 that he’s seeing increased mortality in the forest. “It keeps changing. I used to use the 40 percent mortality figure. Now I’m using 50 percent, and I think that’s pretty conservative.”
County planner Airlin Singewald said in an Aug. 14 email interview, “So far we’ve received requests from property owners to remove 39 dead trees in Cambria using the land-use authorization process. Given the unique nature of this situation, the Planning Department is approaching the issue differently (i.e. by sending out letters rather than processing individual land-use authorizations). We will be communicating with Coastal Commission about this approach.”
All that doesn’t mean the blanket agreement is totally dead, although it had appeared that was the case for a while midmonth.
On Monday, Aug. 17, Supervisor Bruce Gibson said “we’ve not abandoned completely the idea of a blanket permit. We’re trying to help those residents who have had Cal Fire point at trees and say, ‘These have to go.’ In the absence of a blanket permit, we’ll work with individuals to make sure they can get those trees out with minimal obstruction from the county.”
Lewin told the Focus Group that Cal Fire has done almost 3,000 inspections of Cambria properties. A third inspection for those that didn’t pass their second inspection has to be done by a law enforcement person, he said. He didn’t say how many trees had been targeted for removal; that process can be more difficult, because a property owner has to agree that the inspector can go onto the property to check the trees. Otherwise, the inspections are done from the street or from front door.
Gibson said meanwhile, Cal Fire “has identified hundreds of trees on Fiscalini Ranch” that the inspectors felt need to be removed to protect members of the public and nearby homes. “The CSD is going to get its own permit for those … and as that progresses, we’ll get back to the blanket permit.”
Gruber said he may call for a special meeting to get that permit, which is to be paid for in part by a grant from PG&E. That grant is due to expire in October, according to Dan Turner, former county fire chief and a participant in the Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group.
The GM said the district has “about 2,000 in-kind hours” of labor from the California Conservation Corps as “part of a great effort to get this project going.”
County tree workers have removed close to 200 trees, Gibson’s aide Cherie McKee told the Focus Group on Aug. 12. PG&E also has removed or trimmed some trees deemed dangerous to power lines. And Cal Fire crews are continuing to do maintenance work on fuel-break areas previously created on the Covell ranch that encircles most of Cambria’s northern and eastern urban boundaries.
The CCC also has an encroachment permit from Caltrans to clear off brush in some of the state agency’s right-of-way areas in Cambria, but Turner said final authorization is still pending from Sacramento. Separate work permits would have to be issued for each day of work, he said.
Volunteers were to have completed Wednesday a roster of locations that still had stacks of limbs, tree trunks and brush that property owners had set out for a free chipping day in June. Work at those locations apparently was delayed when one of the chipping machines malfunctioned, and CCC crews haven’t been available since then. Another chipping event may be offered next month.