In the last week of October, wildfire-wary Cambrians got a double dose of potentially good news about help for their town’s landmark Monterey pine forest, which has been battered by four years of drought.
Cambria’s forest crisis has a “99.9 percent chance” of getting a federally funded Western State Foresters Wildland Urban Interface grant for $255,000 to help mitigate wildfire and other risks related to dead and dying trees.
And on Oct. 30, Gov. Jerry Brown proclaimed a state of emergency in California’s forests, citing drought conditions and resulting bark-beetle infestations that have caused “vast tree mortality in several regions of the state.”
Cambria is one of those regions, according to Janet Upton, Cal Fire’s deputy director of communications. Upton (who was at a fire-safety news conference in Cambria in May with her boss, state Director Ken Pimlott), said Oct. 30 that a multiagency task force was to be assembled “within days rather than weeks.”
“One of the objectives of the task force is to prioritize” high-hazard California forest areas hit hardest by the drought, she said, “and Cambria will certainly be one of those.”
Upton said she expected the task force to include representatives from Cal Fire, Office of Emergency Services and other state agencies, county and local officials. “It will be very inclusive.”
Now forest and fire officials (including Rob Lewin, interim chief of the Cambria Fire Department and county/Cal Fire chief) say they are waiting for final word on the grant and more details soon about what the emergency declaration really means.
The 3,200-acre North Coast native stand of pines and other trees, one of only three like it on the U.S. mainland (two others are on Mexican islands) has been beset by beetle attacks and the effects of four years of drought and record-setting daily high temperatures.
Lewin and others have estimated that half the forest’s mature trees are dead or dying, and that the percentage is much higher in certain areas of the stand.
Dan Turner, business manager for the county’s Fire Safe Council, wrote to the Fire Safe Council following the release of the governor’s Oct. 30 proclamation related to the tree-mortality problem across California, saying, “These actions should have a profound effect on our hazard-reduction projects across the county and particularly in Cambria.”
Turner noted that a “state of emergency is the highest level of emergency declaration a governor can make.”
Later, Turner said by phone that he believes the proclamation “is designed to speed things up, put into warp drive” the job of cleaning up the state’s forests and making them safe to visit and live within.
Turner said that in the proclamation, Brown “directed several things to occur to expedite removal of dead and dying trees:
▪ All state agencies and in particular The Natural Resources Agency, Cal Fire, Caltrans, Coastal Commission, Air Resources Board and Energy Commission, utilities and local governments “to identify, remove high-hazard trees and vegetation, and establish emergency guidelines to manage the problem where necessary.”
▪ Officials are to “seek locations and methods to store, dispose of and utilize the wood waste being generated by this proclamation, including relaxing air-quality restrictions on prescribed burns and expand existing (and assist in establishment of more) wood- biomass electric-generation plants.”
Turner said Nov. 2 that standard biomass plants are too expensive and too big, and it would be too difficult to find a suitable North Coast location. Likewise, hauling chips to an existing plant in Delano doesn’t appear to be cost effective (“It would cost more than they’d pay us for the wood”).
But he’s researching the possibility of using a portable biomass plant. “I’ve found a company in Berkeley that builds portable, small-scale biomass plants, and I’m wondering if that might not be a better solution.”
He said the proclamation “directs Cal Fire and state OES to provide portable equipment for managing the wood waste issues,” but doesn’t specify exactly what that means.
Turner said the governor also “requested federal assistance from U.S. Department of Agriculture for funding and actions on federal lands.”
To allow all that “to occur expeditiously,” Turner said, the governor directed the suspension of:
▪ “Public Resources Code Division 13, which is the state’s Environmental Quality Act as it relates to this problem.
▪ “Government Code Chapter 3.5, which controls the often lengthy and complex process for adopting regulations through the Office of Administrative Law; and
▪ “Government and public-contract codes related to state contracts, competitive bidding and acquisitions.”
Turner told Cambria’s Fire Safe Focus Group on Oct. 28 that the Cambria forest project had been rated by the Western States foresters’ committee as the “number one priority in the western states, which means the likelihood of its being funded is 99.9 percent.”
He said he felt that the only thing that could derail the grant now “would be if federal funding goes upside down.”
Turner said the funds would be used to enhance and extend fuel break areas between urban Cambria and the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve and Ralph Covell’s ranch.
That would be the third grant for Cambria’s forest this year. Part of a PG&E grant to the Fire Safe Council was used to remove trees that Cal Fire deemed most hazardous to the public, utilities and roadways. The council also has received a $498,736 grant to decrease greenhouse gas emissions in Cambria.