The Cambrian

County grand jury calls for fire emergency in Cambria

Dead and dying pine trees in Cambria have fire officials concerned. This dead pine is on Eton Road.
Dead and dying pine trees in Cambria have fire officials concerned. This dead pine is on Eton Road.

Cambria services district directors soon will consider declaring a state of fire-risk emergency in their community, an action recommended by a San Luis Obispo County grand jury report issued Tuesday, March 17. 

Jerry Gruber, general manager of the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD), added the item to the Board of Directors’ March 26 meeting agenda. The meeting starts at 12:30 p.m. at Cambria’s Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St.

The North Coast’s forest of native Monterey pines is under extreme duress — most of the trees are at the end of their expected life span, beset by illness, parasites, bugs, overcrowding by other trees and development, and, especially, drought.

Recent estimates of forest mortality range from 40 percent throughout the stand to 90 percent in some areas. That high percentage of dying or dead trees in the forest, one of three remaining native Monterey pine stands in the U.S., creates a high risk of fire, falling trees and danger to structures, utilities and people, according to officials at a Fire Safe Council meeting in Cambria on Wednesday.

It’s not known yet what benefit or authority a CCSD declaration would have, or whether the district is even authorized to declare the emergency, some of the officials said. Robert Lewin, county chief for Cal Fire, said, “It may be that the one emergency already declared in the county (for drought) may be enough.” 

Emergency officials are still mulling over that issue.

Lewin said after the meeting that there are different levels of emergencies, and that in legal terms, a services district in an unincorporated area may only be able to “proclaim” that an emergency exists, not declare an emergency. Also, CCSD’s area of authority doesn’t cover the entire forest stand. However, a district proclamation likely could cover the part of the forest that’s within the district boundary.

Why proclaim the emergency? Such a notification could attract the attention of the public and other agencies that do have the power to declare emergencies, such as the county. Declared emergencies often qualify more quickly and easily for grant funds, and some of those funds are only available to declared-emergency situations.

Lewin and others said the bottom line is much of the responsibility will fall to individual property owners for removing dead and dying trees, and disposing of the wood. 

One man in the audience said he has a half dozen dead 30-foot trees on his property and “I can’t afford $2,000 a tree” to have them removed. 

While increasing the number of free “chipping events” in town could help, the officials said, Cambrians will need various different services and techniques to deal with the vast amount of wood that could be generated by efforts to bring the forest back to a healthy state.

During the meeting, Lewin and Mark Miller, chief of the Cambria Fire Department, repeatedly said they’d be ramping up this year’s inspections of defensible space around homes and removal of fire hazards and fuels from vacant lots. The inspections likely will begin earlier in the year, due to the drought, and requirements could be more stringent and all inclusive.


The small coastal town of about 6,000 residents already is under CCSD’s water-supply emergency declaration, which has been in place since 2001, and a drought-emergency declaration since January 2014.

Cambria’s hilly terrain, limited sources of water, more than 4,610 habitable structures, 3,200 acres of Monterey pines and other trees, and relatively remote location all contribute to the fire danger, the grand jury’s March 12 report said. Compounding the problem: Most of the town’s structures are clustered in dense neighborhoods, and many of the trees are dead or dying, according to recent estimates.

The grand jury report states that fire risk is extreme in Cambria’s rare native stand of Monterey pines, a risk exacerbated by years of drought, bark beetles, pitch canker fungus and dwarf mistletoe, all of which increase tree mortality.

The Cambria Forest Committee and other groups have worked collaboratively for years to raise awareness of the forest’s condition, the risk to life and property posed by a fire within the forest or the community that weaves through it. The committee coalition even prepared an extensive forest management plan that’s been widely praised, but never formally implemented or funded.

Some of those groups have collaborated recently on applying for grant funds for forest management. One application for a $460,000 state grant was denied, but others are still being considered. 

Miller and Amanda Rice, CCSD director and member of the Forest Committee, have advocated for fire preparedness, increased communication with community members, and forest awareness and management — all of which were included in the grand jury’s report — for years.

Rice lauded Gruber on Tuesday for giving Cambria Fire the go-ahead to host some community workshops about the fire risk, the condition of the forest, “what emergency plans exist, and what community members need to do for themselves” to decrease the threat to them and their homes.

Such warnings have been issued regularly in the past. But, Rice said, the grand jury’s report goes beyond repeated warnings that the “sky is falling” and into a realm where it’s clear an immediate reaction is needed.

Gruber characterized the grand jury report as being “very, very well written.” The fire-risk situation is so potentially dire and so large, “we will need county, state and federal help here. It’s too big for us to handle” alone. “It’s overwhelming.” 

He said Cambria needs “to strategize as a community” about how to address the problems.

Jury’s opinions

The grand jury came across the fire-danger issue while investigating another, possibly related Cambria issue, according to Larry Herbst, foreman of this year’s grand jury. “In looking in another aspect of that community,” he said, “we realized very quickly that this was something we needed to focus on.”

The jury’s strongly worded advice about Cambria’s risk potential “for a catastrophic fire … heightened by the town’s combination of geography, urban buildup and current drought” came in the panel’s nine-page investigative report. 

The jury found that Cambria “faces a severe fire threat due to a combination of environmental, geographical and demographic factors,” that the public-evacuation plan that would take effect in a wildland fire or other emergency “is not well understood or publicized within the community.” While the Sheriff’s Department would execute such an evacuation plan, promoting the plan is the services district’s responsibility, and that improving fire breaks and removing dead trees and other fire hazards would reduce the fire risk.

The jury recommends that CCSD:

  • Declare the state of fire emergency. Doing so is on the March 26 agenda for the services district’s Board of Directors, and Gruber said he’s urging the county to issue a similar proclamation. Those documents may help the district qualify for federal or state emergency funds or grants.
  • “Obtain funding to improve forest management,” then use that funding to “improve existing fuel breaks, expand the fuel-break program, remove dead and dying trees and remove other fire hazards, such as ladder fuels and other flammable materials.”
  • “Raise public awareness locally and with relevant county, state and federal emergency management agencies. Such actions might include conducting community drills, conducting a new campaign for reverse 911 sign-ups for mobile phones (because many people no longer have a landline phone) and mailing the wildfire evacuation plan to residents.

The district and county supervisors are required to respond to the jury’s findings and recommendations.

Preparing the grand jury report

The jury of 19 people from all around the county interviewed relevant staff members and board members of key organizations, including Cal Fire, CCSD Fire Department (Cambria Fire) and the county Fire Safe Council, plus two former local fire chiefs. 

In the process of preparing the report, jurists reviewed documents, organizational websites, National Fire Protection Association guidelines, Cambria Fire’s planning and strategy documents and general plan and the wildland-urban interface (WUI) fire pre-plan for the Cambria area.

The interface is the area where development meets and intrudes into the forest.

Grand jury members also attended winter-project presentations at Cal Poly, projects for which the teams of WUI Fire Protection students studied Cambria and shared their findings and recommendations with those in the audience, including Miller and his wife, Michele Miller, FFRP’s Butler, and Carlos Mendoza, CCSD’s facilities and resources supervisor and manager of Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, which encompasses a sizeable chunk of Cambria’s Monterey pine forest.