U.S. Forest Service funding for the free vegetation-chipping services that have been such a help to Cambria residents won’t be available after March 2016 — the county has lost a federal block grant it has received for nearly a decade.
Next year, unless county and fire officials can find another grant or funding source, residents and property owners will be essentially on their own to dispose of the woody waste. That disposal is mandated by local and state weed-abatement and defensible-space codes, and fire officials strongly recommend doing that work before each fire season.
If El Niño doesn’t produce the storms and heavier rainfall that’s expected this winter — but which certainly isn’t guaranteed — the county’s fire season could be year-round again after four punishing years of drought that have left thousands of dead and dying trees in Cambria’s stand of native Monterey pines and other trees. Effects of the statewide drought have been so devastating, the governor issued several emergency declarations, one of them focused solely on mitigating the damage to forests and trees.
The countywide chipping program, funded by a U.S. Forest Service grant every two years since 2008, has been a tool in helping residents clear their properties of dry brush to make them more fire-safe.
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We didn’t get the grant this year, but that doesn’t mean chipping will go away, just that we have to find other ways to make it happen.
Rob Lewin, Cal Fire/county fire chief
The grant allowed local fire agencies to chip up pregathered dead and dying brush and disperse it on the property as an alternative to residents burning or transporting the wood to a green-waste disposal facility or landfill.
“This program has been very helpful as an alternative to burning it, which can be dangerous, and many people don’t know how to transport it properly or safely,” said Dan Turner, manager of the county’s Fire Safe Council, “but there’s always been a disclaimer that it is dependent on our ability to (obtain) the grant.”
That is now the problem. The county’s nonprofit Fire Safe Council, which assists local agencies with grant writing, was denied a grant of about $200,000 to provide those services after March 2016, when the current grant expires.
The program has been a useful resource for rural county residents. Most cities and unincorporated communities prohibit burning vegetation on private property because of concerns about fire safety and air pollution.
Chipping has been an essential tool for Cambrians. Property owners aren’t supposed to transport local wood, especially pine, out of town because there’s a pitch canker infestation in the forest. Insects and spores in infested wood and greenery can become vectors that carry the fungus to other trees.
The U.S. Forest Service issues those chipping-services block grants to states in two-year cycles. Last year, the California Fire Safe Council received $4 million to administer to counties for their individual programs, Turner said.
San Luis Obispo County has been fortunate, he said, having received close to the maximum county award — $200,000 — every cycle since 2008.
The chipping grant is one of a handful of large grants regularly obtained and administered by the county’s Fire Safe Council, Turner said, and the organization already has begun the process of applying to reinstate the program in late 2017.
Turner noted in an email Monday, Nov. 30, that Cambria was the site of the council’s “very first chipping event,” in 1999.
Rob Lewin, Cal Fire/county fire chief, said that original grant was issued by the Air Pollution Control Board.
“The intention then was to demonstrate that we can do it (remove green waste and downed wood) without burning. We did the events in many places in the county … with the hope that public agencies would take over.”
That didn’t happen, so the Fire Safe Council kept seeking grant funds “because we have to get the vegetation away from people’s homes.”
Cambria also has its own wood-chipping machine, courtesy of another APCD grant.
Bob Putney, former chief of the Cambria Fire Department, who wrote that grant application, said that members of the original Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group often were active participants in the chipping programs, as have been members of Community Emergency Response Team.
“We didn’t get the grant this year,” Lewin said, “but that doesn’t mean chipping will go away, just that we have to find other ways to make it happen.”
He and Turner said that other grants may be available, and the council would submit the applications. Turner quipped that “I have my water-cooled pencil ready to write them.”