The Cambrian

Cambria, North Coast chipping away at fire danger

Tim Winsor stands at the bottom section of a tree estimated to have been 100 feet tall at his San Simeon Creek Road site Aug. 16. The tree came from the Vineyard Fellowship property on Main Street.
Tim Winsor stands at the bottom section of a tree estimated to have been 100 feet tall at his San Simeon Creek Road site Aug. 16. The tree came from the Vineyard Fellowship property on Main Street.

As buzzing chainsaws are heard throughout Cambria, dead trees and limbs are being removed in preparation for what could be a fierce fire season during this fourth year of local and statewide drought.

Tim Winsor, owner of Winsor Construction’s green waste disposal site on San Simeon Creek Road, knows firsthand how many trees are being removed, because once a local tree has been chopped into transportable pieces, his site is usually where the remains are taken.

Many, many trees in the North Coast’s Monterey pine forest, are drying and dying, and according to state and local regulations, the resulting wood must be chipped up or hauled away to reduce the amount of available fuel for wildfires. 

In Cambria this year, Cambria Fire Department and Cal Fire will require property owners to also remove any fallen trees and trunks with a diameter of 12 inches or less. 

County Public Works tree crews have identified about 170 potentially hazardous trees to be removed from county right-of-way areas in Cambria, according to Supervisor Bruce Gibson. PG&E contractor Davey Tree reportedly also has ramped up its trimming and removal services in the area.

That’s a lot of wood.

Pitch canker

Many native pines in the North Coast stand have pitch canker fungus, a contagious disease easily transmitted by spores carried by bugs and the wind. To reduce the risk of bringing the devastating fungus into areas that don’t yet have it, North Coast wood is not supposed to be taken out of the area. 

So the wood stacks up at Winsor’s site.

Winsor said April 16 he’s feeling a bit overwhelmed by the ever-growing piles of logs in one area of the site and of green waste (branches, twigs, vines, grass, weeds and even some dirt) in another.

“And this is just the beginning,” he said, as he watched tree trimmer Misael Peña deliver more massive chunks from a dead, leaning pine that had been a threat to the Cambria Vineyard Church property. Peña estimated the tree had been about 100 feet tall.

Winsor said the stack of logs at the site that day was about 300 feet long, 100 feet wide and 15 feet tall, too large to capture in a photograph unless it was taken from the air.

And that was despite two previous days of nonstop chipping by a 40-ton grinder that costs $450 an hour for the machine and the operator, in addition to the $150 an hour it takes to operate Winsor’s excavator, which moves the chips around.

Winsor estimated the grinder had chipped approximately 500 cubic yards of wood in two days, or about one-tenth of the accumulated logs. But as the grinder chipped away, more logs were coming in by the truckload, one after another after another, in a forest version of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment in Disney’s 1940 animated “Fantasia” film.

Giant logs, like those Peña was bringing in, must be split into chunks no more than 24 inches in diameter before they can fit in the grinder, Winsor said. It’s a slow process.

Then the chips must sit for a while to make sure the piles get hot enough to kill the bugs that carry the fungus. But Winsor doesn’t want the chips to sit there too long — the heat can get intense enough to cause spontaneous combustion, and he certainly doesn’t want a fire in the yard.

Some logs are marked with a red X on the end. Those are destined to be milled into lumber by Aaron Appel or Brooks Lawrence, Winsor said. Both men have portable sawmills near the green waste yard.

The pine isn’t prime lumber. “There’s not much call for knotty pine these days,” Winsor said, but it can be used for certain kinds of construction.  

Chips by the truckload

Winsor likely will sell wood chips by the truckload soon, he said, to help reduce the ever-growing chip mountains at the site. 

He hadn’t set a firm price as of April 16, but was thinking in the neighborhood of $5 a yard (most pickup truck beds hold a few yards at most, depending on the size of the bed).

Some forest experts recommend putting mulch rings of chips under the driplines of thirsty pine and other native species, rather than up against the trunks where the mulch would 

encourage mildew. The dripline is the area under a tree’s branches, where rain and accumulated fog would drip off onto the ground.

The chips hold moisture in the soil without substantially increasing fire danger. Firefighters say it’s harder to get chips burning in a manner that spreads fire quickly.