After spending much of 2015 preparing for wildfire in North Coast forests and grasslands parched by a lack of water, local residents and other Californians face El Niño-triggered dangers from heavy rain storms, high winds, high surf, floods and falling trees — a danger magnified because a prolonged drought has left so many trees dead and dying.
El Niño has been a topic of discussion at various area meetings lately, including those by services district and fire officials, Cambria Forest Committee, North Coast Advisory Council and Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group participants.
Recent modest rainfall has reduced the local fire hazard somewhat, according to fire officials, but even though the North Coast has gotten a couple of inches of precipitation since the rain season began, that doesn’t mean the drought is over.
Aware residents still are geared up for fire, with “go bags” by the door, weeds and brush kept trimmed and chainsaws abuzz as dead trees are removed.
Some of those preparations could help residents prepare for the potential of strong storms and heavy rainfall in the season ahead.
Sand and sandbags
For many, the first line of defense against flooding is sandbags.
County Public Works has free sand for Cambrians at Shamel Park (at the Windsor Boulevard curve on Park Hill), Lampton Park (at Lampton and Windsor Boulevard on Lodge Hill) and the dog park (on Main Street near Santa Rosa Creek Road. San Simeon residents can get sand near the services district office at 111 Pico Avenue. Sand and bags at the Cambria Fire Department’s station on Burton Drive are for firefighters to use during emergencies.
People must buy their own sandbags, which are available at Cambria Hardware on Village Lane, which also sells filled sandbags.
El Niño plan-ahead
Some storm hazards include localized and neighborhood-wide flooding, power outages and falling trees.
Various county and local officials, including representatives of Caltrans, Cal Fire, Cambria Fire Department and Cambria Community Services District plan to meet soon to map out response plans for anticipated heavy storms.
Officials hope to update those plans, review potential problems and consider other hazard-prevention measures.
Eric Shalhoob, interim manager of the Cambria Fire Department, is one of those trying to pull the group together for a meeting for local planning, and, he wrote in a Nov. 16 email, “I will also be attending a meeting in December that will include officials from all over the county regarding flood plans.”
Meanwhile, Shalhoob has begun “preparing and working with Fire Department staff on problem areas from the past specific to Cambria. I have also researched the 100-year flood maps from FEMA” with Cal Fire’s GIS department, and was to have picked up large copies of those maps Nov. 17.
County agencies also are taking an aggressive planning stance, according to www.slocounty.ca.gov/OES/stormprep. The Office of Emergency Services is developing an “adverse weather plan” as a reference guide for emergency managers, and Public Works has cleaned and maintained drainage structures, pipes, basins and areas under some bridges.
Fire crews train regularly for everything from water rescues to bagging sand, and regularly review their procedures for responding to floods and fallen trees.
Santa Rosa Creek
However, participants in the Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group said Oct. 28 and Nov. 9 they’re worried about willows, brush and debris that’s growing in, collecting in and clogging lower Santa Rosa Creek.
Cal Fire forester Alan Peters said those obstructions can cause real problems when rushing creek waters get high enough to flood and jam the flotsam and jetsam against area bridges and facilities.
There’s so much vegetation … that you can’t see the creek.
Gail Robinette, CCSD board president, on Santa Rosa Creek
That was the case in 1995, when water pushed downstream masses of accumulated tree trunks, shrubs, branches and other debris, which then jammed into the Windsor Boulevard Bridge, took out the bridge apron and swept away the water and sewer pipes attached under the bridge.
Cherie McKee, legislative aide to Supervisor Bruce Gibson, said their office has been fielding “a lot of questions about possible flooding,” and Gibson has been working closely with Public Works. She said the supervisor had been assured by Public Works that they’ve “done everything they can without a permit.”
“People are very concerned” about the condition of the creek, said Gail Robinette, president of CCSD Board of Directors. “There’s so much vegetation … that you can’t see the creek.”
“You can’t do work in the creek without a coastal permit,” Focus Group Chairwoman Shirley Bianchi told meeting attendees, but getting environmental permits to clear in those areas is a chancy, difficult, lengthy process and time is running out.
She said California has designed Santa Rosa Creek as one of the two “ ‘dirtiest’ creeks on the coast,” in terms of being filled with so many “branches, fallen trees, shrubs and rocks, etc. The situation truly can be very difficult.”
And the other “dirty” creek along the coast? San Simeon Creek.