The Cambrian

Cambria fire discussion heating up on several fronts

Forest conditions, the potential for a disastrous wildfire, who will lead the Cambria Fire Department after Chief Mark Miller leaves July 17 and whether  that department ultimately could be replaced by Cal Fire continue to be hot topics in town. 

The discussions were at coffee klatches, on social media, in email threads and phone conversations, plus during at least two public meetings — one of which included more than two dozen fire-concerned citizens. 

Those issues are apt to come up in one form or another during the Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors meeting that starts at 

12:30 p.m. Thursday, June 25, at the Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St. 

Inspections

Meanwhile, Cal Fire has continued its defensible space/hazardous tree inspections of properties with structures on them. 

According to Unit Forester Alan Peters, as of Monday, June 15, 1,262 of the 1,524 parcels Cal Fire had completed passed, 203 failed or needed re-inspection and 59 were given recommendations for work to be done. 

Peters said inspectors don’t write citations, which are issued by a peace officer or public officer after three inspections show no progress. He said 58 lots have dead trees, many with multiple dead trees. 

“Since we do not have access to walk around lots and inspect trees closely at this point, the tree count is just an estimate from the street,” he said. Landowners who want to use Cal Fire’s inspections as support for tree-removal permits “will need to allow us back to assess trees more closely and document those that will be removed.”

Chief’s status

CCSD hasn’t yet taken any action on hiring a new fire chief, and probably won’t until directors appoint an ad hoc committee that provides advice to the district on the Cal Fire vs. Cambria Fire choice.

When asked about those issues on Monday, June 15, General Manager Jerry Gruber said,  “I will seek direction from the board” on a new fire chief, and district directors are to deliberate June 25 on the ad hoc members.

Meeting topics

The meetings of the Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group on Thursday, June 11, and Cambria Forest Committee on Wednesday, June 10, approached similar issues from slightly different directions, but with the same sense of urgency. 

Some of the almost dizzying number of topics discussed were:

  • How essential it is for CCSD to have a Local Hazard Mitigation Plan if the district is to qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency mitigation funds for district projects. 
  • Prioritizing several dozen worrisome items on a list of possible evacuation problems, and if anything can be done — by the focus group or others — to make those problems less potentially catastrophic.
  • Negotiations between San Luis Obispo Couty and CCSD on a blanket permit that could make it easier for property owners to apply for permits to remove dead trees, and reduce or eliminate permit costs. At the moment, none of the agencies seems willing to take the lead on the emergency permit, which would require getting a full permit later, triggering consideration by the California Coastal Commission.
  • Organizing and doing neighborhood emergency drills, similar to schools’ fire and earthquake drills, in which small areas of town would practice together during a previously unannounced drill.
  • A $75,000 grant from PG&E to the county Fire Safe Council, with much of that money going toward removing hazardous trees in Cambria, according to council and Cal Fire representatives. 
  • Reforestation, where, how and when to plant replacement trees. Forest committee officials stressed that doing so now is not only OK, but preferable, as long as the property owner does it correctly. (See Viewpoint, Page 11.) 

Evacuations

At its June 11 meeting, the Fire Focus Group split into two brainstorming teams charged with compiling a list of the evacuation problems, including how people would be notified, how to aid people who need help and visitors who don’t know the area, air quality, electricity loss, people trying to go back into the fire area or doing so by accident, not being able to count on cellphone communication in an emergency, reuniting parents and children, and having enough parking area for evacuees. 

The group agreed that the top problems were road congestion and community outreach — to make sure people have planned and are prepared. 

“Your road network sucks, and in an emergency, it may be worse,” said Dan Turner of the Fire Safe Council. 

Not all the problems listed would be in the group’s purview, he said. 

“Focus your energies on things you can do,” Turner said. 

Local Hazard Mitigation Plan

Does the Cambria services district need a hazard-mitigation plan now or as soon as possible? Ken Topping, a Cambria resident, says yes, forcefully. 

The Fire Safe Council has endorsed CCSD preparing such a plan, and the Cambria focus group concurred.

Topping is a county planning commissioner and former CCSD general manager who has worked all over the world on hazard mitigation plans, often following disasters such as earthquakes in New Orleans, New York and New Jersey, as well as the Philippines and wildfires in Oakland and Australia. He also was project director for Cal Poly’s 2010 State Hazard Mitigation Plan for California and senior adviser for the state’s 2013 plan.

He doesn’t want to prepare Cambria’s Local Hazard Mitigation Plan, he said, but he’s written a one-page outline for it, gratis.

Topping told the Fire Safe Focus Group that grants from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation program are made available to help communities recover from federally declared disasters, and prevent future effects from disasters of the same kind, but also for prevention. 

Later, he told The Cambrian, that such a plan, “offers a community a framework for sound, long-term planning for minimizing risks of a catastrophic disaster, whether it’s triggered by a wildfire, earthquake, flood or other natural hazard.”

The plan “provides a prioritized set of strategies for taking systematic actions to alter the built and natural environment towards permanently reducing disaster risks and vulnerabilities of all kinds.

“Dead and dying trees are just one source of such risks and vulnerabilities” in Cambria, he said. “The community is vulnerable to other risks as well, such as drought, heat, landslides and tsunamis.” 

He stressed that, “it’s best to be working on disaster-prevention strategies now, not after a disaster happens,” in which people could die and property losses can skyrocket.

Topping said under federal law, “CCSD is currently not eligible to receive mitigation grants, whether such funds are needed before a disaster strikes or after.” 

Before the district can be eligible, it must prepare and adopt its own local plan, and FEMA must approve it.

“The county cannot do this for CCSD because federal law does not allow it,” he said. “Even if a disaster were to happen tomorrow and create an urgent need for such FEMA grant funds to hasten recovery,” CCSD would first have to prepare and adopt its plan and secure FEMA approval to have grant eligibility. 

“Although FEMA can provide some leeway after a disaster for speeding LHMP preparation, adoption and approval,” Topping explained, that “is still a long, arduous process which seriously slows recovery, as experienced by other communities caught similarly unprepared.

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