The Cambrian

Cambria gears up for response to extreme fire risk

With growing awareness about thousands of dead trees in the forest and a probable fourth year of drought, Cambria residents will have several opportunities to learn more about what experts are calling an extreme fire risk posed by the cascading effects of that drought, disease, bug infestations, parasites and overcrowding on the North Coast’s rare native stand of Monterey pines.

The forest-and-fire threat is on the agenda for the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) Board of Directors meeting that begins at 12:30 p.m. today (Thursday, March 26) in the Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St.

A series of informational public workshop meetings in Cambria also is being planned by CCSD and Cambria Fire Department, with the first one expected to be from 6 to 9 p.m., Thursday, April 9, at the vets hall. 

The second would be an open house from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 9, at the Cambria fire station, 2850 Burton Drive.

The situation is dire, according to firefighters and forest professionals speaking to about 150 people at a Fire Safe Council meeting in Cambria on March 18, where they warned that the time for government, nonprofit agencies and individuals to act is now.

Aggressive clean up of brush, downed trees and flammables will be required this spring, officials said. In addition, dead and dying trees, especially those around power lines and other sources of ignition, should be removed before they fall. 

The results of not doing so could be catastrophic, the officials said. 

Alan Peters, Cal Fire unit forester, said most North Coast pines in the 3,200-acre forest are at the end of their expected life span of 80 years or so, which makes them even more susceptible to such diseases as pitch canker fungus and infestations by parasites and insects. 

Rob Lewin, the county’s Cal Fire chief, also gave an overview of the Cambria forest-and-fire situation to county supervisors Tuesday, March 24, echoing much of what was said at the March 18 Fire Safe Council meeting.

CCSD today

At the CCSD board’s meeting today (Thursday), directors are to consider declaring a state of emergency “based upon the risk of a catastrophic fire,” and requesting that county 

supervisors declare a local emergency, according to their codes. That could bring attention to the crisis, even on a statewide and 

federal level, and perhaps help the area qualify for grants or low-cost loans.

Some time ago, the Fire Safe Council, CCSD, Cambria Forest Committee, Cal Fire and other agencies and nonprofits formed a coalition to apply for grants. A couple of those applications weren’t funded; others are still in the pipeline, according to Dan Turner, retired county fire chief, now the council’s business manager.

Fire Safe Council

At the Fire Safe Council meeting, nearly everybody seemed to agree the forest needs to be managed, and soon, although there may be some disagreement on just what that means.

Wally Mark, Cal Poly forestry professor and a member of the Pitch Canker Task Force, said, Cambria “forest management has been ignored and sidetracked,” sometimes “in the name of preservation and conservation.” With a rueful laugh, he added that, “I’ll probably get stoned” for the latter comment.

Mark said the North Coast doesn’t “have a natural forest. We have a forest dictated by our forest 

management practices. … We’ve got to look at some extraordinary tactics and recognize that we’ll lose some trees,” even some that are still green.

He urged a two-pronged approach, with forest safety and forest health being on equal footing. 

“If we don’t deal with the forest health, the people who came to live in Cambria in the Monterey pine forest” will find themselves instead “living in the oaks and broom.”

Mother Nature’s customary forest-management technique — a fire that wipes out the entire stand, allowing it to regenerate naturally — would be catastrophic in a forest laced with homes, other structures and people. 

Other means of managing the forest will take lots of time, money and effort, along with dogged determination by governmental agencies, nonprofits and, most of all, individual property owners whom officials said must take responsibility for trees and brush on their own lands.

Money is key, because removing dead and dying trees is expensive. One man in the audience told council members 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. 

CCSD Director Amanda Rice said many Cambrians are property rich but cash poor.

Four forest management plans exist: 

  • The April 2002 communitywide Cambria plan from the Cambria Forest Committee.
  • The 2003 plan for the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.
  • The February 2011 plan for the Covell Ranch’s forested areas.
  • The 2014 maintenance and monitoring plan for the Fiscalini preserve.
  • Each one will take substantial funding to implement.
  • Dealing with the wood and brush after a tree is felled also can be costly and problematic.

Tim Winsor told the council that his greenwaste-disposal yard on San Simeon Creek Road already is very full. 

“A big pile (of wood) comes in every day, probably as big as this building,” he said, and the situation “is getting worse by the week,” in part because the wood and chips can’t be hauled out of town due to the possibility of carrying pitch canker fungus into an uninfected area.

Mark, the forestry professor, suggested hiring a portable mill to cut the trunks into 4-by-6-inch fence posts, which then could be sent to the San Joaquin Valley to be treated. 

“They’re super for fences, underlayment for decking, anywhere that’s damp,” he said.

The elephant in the forest is the pervasive drought. 

Council members said they were shocked by the recent rapid decline in the forest. 

For instance, Turner noted that recent studies in the Scott Rock area near the high school showed forest mortality had grown to more than 35 or 40 percent in January, compared with a more normal 10 percent mortality found 22 months earlier in a March 2013 study.  

As much as 90 percent of the pines are dead or dying in some areas, according to recent surveys by Cal Fire and a group of Cal Poly forestry students. 

Other species, such as the oaks, also are showing the effects of the drought and general forest conditions.

Forester, cooperation

While some work has been done, especially on the Fiscalini and Covell ranches, “we’ll never get the management plans off the ground without hiring a forester,” said Jo Ellen Butler, executive director of Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. 

“We need to come up with real money now to hire a registered forester. Carlos (Mendoza, CCSD’s resource manager) has been removing dead and dying trees on behalf of CCSD. I’m amazed by how much he’s done in so little time … (but) working together is the only way.”

Even without a community forester and funds, some action is being taken. 

Defensible space

For instance, Cal Fire’s Peters and Mark Miller, chief for Cambria Fire Department, said their agencies will be cracking down during weed-abatement season.

Starting in April, Peters said, “We may come and bang on your doors more than in the past,” telling homeowners to increase the amount of defensible space around their structures. 

Peters said Cal Fire also will maintain and expand fuel breaks, and Lewin pledged to search for more funds for free “chipping” programs that make mulch out of branches and brush.

CCSD’s Fire Hazard/Fuel Reduction program will be more aggressive this year, Miller said. 

“We’re so far behind the curve” in potential fire hazards in the forest, “we are going to ramp up our enforcement,” which this year also will include “removal of dead vegetation, including logs, on the floor of the forest.”

With all the work to be done, “We’ll be challenged,” he said. “But it’s something we have to get started with. Now it’s at a crisis situation.”

Also recommended

Mark, Peters, Lewin, Miller and others highlighted some forest-management techniques for agencies and individuals.

  • Lewin recommended “learning how to defend your house … and keeping material trimmed back. You’re already in a water crisis, which forced you to not do what we wanted you to do, which was irrigate those trees. It’s a double whammy. I feel your pain.”
  • Agencies should enforce and landowners should comply with requirements for defensible space, weed abatement and clearance around power lines.

Also, the community and its residents should:

  • Harden homes and other buildings (fire-resistant roof, deck and siding, for instance … even putting fine-mesh screening on vents).
  • Register cellphones with the county, to get reverse-911 calls in an emergency.
  • Determine the differences between hazardous trees and those that are dying or dead, but not a threat to public safety … except for the fire hazard they create.
  • Plant seedlings and scatter cones. Use “pinetainers” instead of 1-gallon pots, and be careful where you plant, Mark said. Don’t plant under the drip line of a big tree or under an oak. "You might as well throw it on the highway and run over it,” he said.
  • Remove hazardous and infested trees, as determined by a certified arborist. Supervisor Bruce Gibson said he’s already begun to address permit requirements for removals — no permit is needed now to remove a dead tree — and  possible changes or delays to the requirement for replacement plantings, which are difficult to do successfully during a drought. “I’m all about how to make this as fast and inexpensive as possible,” he said.
  • Remove invasive species.
  • Remove ladder fuels that carry fire from the ground to the treetops. 
  • Create more fuel breaks.
  • Widely distribute evacuation brochures.
  • Thin the forest so the next generation of trees can get light, sun, water and nutrition. However, Mark said thinning “a forest that’s 80 years old” may not help. 
  • Do prescribed burns where practical.
  • Use insecticide selectively.
  • Move power lines underground to reduce fire hazards.

And the bottom line? Implement the forest management plans and have individual property owners create defensible space around their homes. They also should promptly remove any hazardous, dead or dying trees and the wood and brush created by those removals. 

Butler said, “The fact that we’re all here, talking about the same thing, speaks about how critical it is that we work together.” She said, “In this town, there’s a huge opposition to cutting any healthy tree, and I’ve been one” defending the trees. However, she said, “in some places where thinning needs to happen, some healthy trees may need to come down to make room for the new generation.”