The Cambrian

Big Sur fire: cautionary parallels to North Coast

As North Coast residents fret about the threat of wildfire in the area’s 3,200-acre, rare native stand of Monterey pines, they can take comfort in the fact that others across San Luis Obispo County and state are worried about that, too.

Members of the San Luis Obispo County Fire Safe Council are to meet Thursday morning, Aug. 4, in San Simeon to discuss that and other aspects of fire prevention and fire safety countywide.

The meeting, open to the public, will start 9 a.m. at the Plaza del Cavalier Banquet Room, 250 San Simeon Ave., San Simeon.

Some participants in the Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group, a subset of the council, are expected to attend Thursday’s meeting. But the group’s official representative to the council, Bruce Fosdike, won’t be there. The retired firefighter was deployed July 30 to train and then direct a military company from Camp Roberts to help battle the raging Soberanes Fire in the rugged hills between Carmel and Big Sur.

Fosdike’s alternate to the council, Susan McDonald, said she plans to attend the meeting.

As of 8 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 2, the Soberanes Fire had burned more than 43,400 acres, and more than 5,450 personnel were battling the blaze. Smoke from the wildfire had swept down the coast for days to Cambria and beyond. Private dozer operator Robert Oliver Reagen III, 35, of Friant died Tuesday, July 26, when his dozer rolled over during night operations on the fire. In a separate rollover accident that night, another dozer driver wasn’t injured.

Soberanes and Cambria

Fosdike and fire officials drew sobering parallels recently between the Soberanes Fire area and the potential for such an event on the North Coast.

Although much of what had burned in the area south of Carmel is a bit farther inland than most of Cambria, the terrain “parallels here quite a bit,” Fosdike told Focus Group participants July 27. “It’s the same type of surroundings, road structures, same kind of evacuation problems,” with dense forests that haven’t burned in decades, steep hills, narrow roads and houses built among the trees.

What has Cambria’s fire hazards front and center in the eyes of some county and state fire officials is the sheer number of houses in the midst of thousands of trees, many of them dead or dying as a result of drought, beetle attacks, diseases or because they’re at the end of their life cycle.

If a wildfire swept from the open land into town, or if a large fire started in town and spread out to the rangeland, the potential for loss of life is staggering here, according to representatives of Cal Fire, Cambria Fire Department and others well versed in fire patterns and hazards.

That’s why Supervisor Bruce Gibson, members of the Focus Group, Cambria Forest Committee and Cambria Community Services District are pushing to get the North Coast included in the state Tree Mortality Task Force’s list of areas most heavily impacted by catastrophic tree die-off from the drought and other causes.

That hope was a topic of lengthy discussion at the most recent Focus Group meeting.

Also discussed were various grants that will help fund removing some of the fallen trees, clear other fire fuels and clean up areas cleared during Cal Fire’s 2012 fuel break along Bridge Street and the eastern and northeastern edge of urban Cambria.

The forest

Cambria’s rare native stand of Monterey pines is one of three that remain on the U.S. mainland. The other two are on the Monterey Peninsula and at Año Nuevo. Two other small stands are on Mexican islands.

According to plantguide/pdf/cs_ pira2.pdf, average lifespan of a Monterey pine is 80 to 90 years.

Monterey pine cones do not release their seeds “unless subjected to high temperatures,” the website said, “Superheating may occur on very hot days or during fire events. Because hot days do not often occur in the Central Coast of California, replenishment of the seed bank is highly dependent on fire.”

UC adviser to speak

On Thursday, Aug. 4, Royce Larsen, natural resource watershed adviser from the county’s UC Cooperative Extension Field Station, will be the featured speaker at a special talk hosted by the Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group.

Larsen is to explain how watersheds function and discuss the history of droughts in the Western U.S.

The talk will be from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St.