Even in the middle of the busy holiday season, officials have continued laboring over the public-safety and forest-health crises in Cambria’s landmark — and rare — native stand of Monterey pines. Many of the pines are dying because of age, diseases, beetle attacks and the effects of a ravaging four-year drought.
Cambria’s forest ebbs and flows naturally, especially with the 100-year-or-so lifespan of the pines. The prolonged drought, however, has decimated a much higher percentage than usual of those trees, with mortality estimates ranging from 40 to 90 percent, depending on if the figures relate to the entire stand or a specific neighborhood or area.
Crisis-level planning this summer focused on the possibility of wildfire in the crackling-dry forest. Now, emergency and utility crews also are spotlighting what could happen if potentially fierce El Niño-driven storms materialize, as some have predicted.
The combination of strong winds and dying trees can be dangerous, even lethal.
Law enforcement and fire officials have been conferring in various configurations to make sure all the agencies are geared up and ready, now, for whatever Mother Nature dishes out in early 2016.
Lumber and grants
Issues include what to do with a dead tree after it’s been cut down.
Cal Fire Forester Alan Peters met with Pacific Coast Lumber representatives at Cambria’s wastewater treatment plant Monday, Dec. 21. They discussed “options, consistent with the governor’s tree-mortality emergency proclamation and the goals of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction grant,” a $498,000 award received recently by the county Fire Safe Council.
However, according to Dan Turner, council business manager, the group didn’t win a $1.4 million sister grant.
“Now that we know the answer on that grant,” he said, “we have to step back and rescope our effectiveness with the funds that we do have.”
Peters said one option is using the downed wood to make various products. That would help sequester carbon from the forest, a primary aim of the grant.
He said he’s asked “local arborists who remove large trees from residential lots to leave the largest logs in lengths of at least 16 feet, 6 inches, if possible … so that we can potentially utilize these logs under the grant.”
Turner said the strength and viability of that wood will determine whether it can be used to make products other than chips and mulch.
Tree removals and more
Peters said Cal Fire tagged 77 trees for removal from residential properties, and 26 of those trees were within the Cambria Cemetery. He said that 190 dead hazard trees were flagged on Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, and all have been felled.
The county’s expedited authorization process, which temporarily replaced the usually required permit for taking down dead trees, ends Dec. 31, according to county planner Airlin Singewald. Few Cambrians took advantage of that process, he said.
Singewald added, however, that the county “received 75 regular removal requests, of which 54 have been authorized, 13 are pending approval and 10 were denied” because inspecting arborists determined the trees didn’t meet the removal criteria.
Did people remove trees without permits or authorization?
Tim Winsor of Winsor Construction, which has a wood-disposal yard on San Simeon Creek Road, said Monday, Dec. 21, that he doesn’t know exactly how many felled trees have been brought into his facility this year, but he estimated the number was “in the hundreds, not in the thousands.”
Peters also trained Cal Fire engine crews and others Tuesday, Dec. 22, “to finally begin the Caltrans right-of-way project … at the Santa Rosa Creek Bridge.”
The project is to finish removing dead-and-downed woods, plus the highly flammable and fast-growing invasive plants, French broom and pampas grass, which are proliferating in that area.
California officials, too, are concerned about and involved with Cambria forest planning.
State Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning from Monterey came to town Wednesday, Dec. 16, to learn more about the local crisis and guide officials on getting state funds to help in the race against time, wildfire and El Niño.
“He seemed genuinely helpful, engaged and interested,” Turner said, “and honestly looking for ways to be of assistance,” especially during the next budget year.
Susan Craig, manager of the California Coastal Commission’s Central Coast District office in Santa Cruz, wrote Dec. 16 to James Bergman, director of the county’s planning department, to address Cambria’s forest situation from a regulatory aspect.
“As you know,” Craig wrote, “native Monterey pine forests are exceedingly rare and the Commission has found them to be environmentally sensitive habitat areas.”
She noted that Cambria’s stand is one of only three such native forests in California, and four in the world. In past decisions, commissioners usually have ruled on the side of forest protection.
The four-year drought, however, has triggered official safety and other concerns from such agencies as widespread as the county grand jury and the Governor’s Office. Craig wrote that “commission staff agrees that there is an identifiable threat to health and safety in Cambria associated with historic drought conditions, albeit somewhat reduced right now based on recent rains. … We want to assure the county and others that we are aware of the problem and are engaging to assist in addressing the problem collaboratively.”
She continued, “The key is to start planning” now, “and to try to avoid situations where we are confronted anew with fire-safety concerns for which we have not put in place effective permitting and (planning) tools to address those concerns” about proper protection of the forest while ensuring that dead and combustible vegetation is removed as efficiently as possible.
County and Pacific Gas & Electric officials met in a round-table discussion Monday, Dec. 21, in Avila Beach to plan ahead for any El Niño-related outages and emergencies, including what residents should do now to be prepared.
Other Cal Fire officials, including Battalion Chief Eric Shalhoob, met Tuesday, Dec. 22, in Cambria for preliminary financial discussions with Gail Robinette and Mike Thompson, respectively president and vice president of the Cambria Community Services District.
Both directors serve on the district’s ad hoc committee on the future of Cambria Fire Department and whether the 138-year-old, stand-alone fire department should continue to function separately or be managed and operated permanently by Cal Fire, as it has been since this past summer.
Meanwhile, as chainsaws roar, rains fall and winds blow, officials will continue applying for grants, conferring and making sure everybody’s as ready as possible for whatever happens this winter and spring … and for the next fire season, of course.