When a group of veteran fire officials gathered in Cambria at the start of fire season to mark Wildfire Awareness Week, one made a startling suggestion: That the Cambria Fire Department consider asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for concrete boxes where residents could take shelter from a wildfire.
“At least it’s a better alternative than what we’re looking at out there right now,” said Dan Oakes, a former battalion chief.
His comment was picked up by a National Public Radio reporter in Cambria covering the event.
Unorthodox as it was, the suggestion of concrete bunkers underscores the threat Cambrians face. The pine forest that gives the community its character is in serious trouble; overall, 40 percent of trees are dead or dying, though the percentage is much higher in some areas. If a fire were to start, the danger of rapid spread is extreme, and with only one major route in and out of town, evacuation traffic could easily become snarled.
Steps have been taken to reduce the risk, including efforts to identify and remove the most hazardous trees. The community also has been successful in attracting grant funds from several sources, and more grants could be coming. But it’s going to be a costly, multiyear effort to remove and replace thousands of trees, and the problem is so widespread and the cost so daunting — removing a single tree can cost more than $1,200 — that every available resource must be tapped.
That’s why we, too, urge Cambria to look to FEMA for help — not for concrete bunkers, but for funds earmarked for preventing disasters from happening in the first place. The Cambria Community Services District — which provides fire protection within its boundaries — could apply for funds to remove dead and dying trees.
But there is a catch: To be eligible for a pre-disaster project grant from FEMA, the Cambria Community Services District must first have a Local Hazard Mitigation Plan that would cover multiple disasters such as fires, earthquakes and floods.
The Community Services District doesn’t have such a plan yet, but General Manager Jerry Gruber said he’ll ask the board of directors to consider authorizing preparation of the plan next month. That’s good news, and we strongly urge the board to move forward with a plan as soon as possible.
Not only would it qualify the Community Services District to apply for funds available on an annual basis, but money could also be allocated for mitigation projects should a federal disaster be declared anywhere in California. For example, should a disastrous fire occur in Southern California, it’s possible that grants could be available to mitigate risks in communities like Cambria.
While there’s no guarantee Cambria would receive FEMA funds — the competition for those dollars is intense — it would be egregious not to even try.
And the effort shouldn’t stop with FEMA. Other communities have effectively lobbied for other federal funds for pre-disaster work.
One highly successful example: Following devastating Southern California wildfires in 2003, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties benefited from a $150 million congressional appropriation to remove dead and dying trees that put local populations at high risk. The money paid for tree removal on public and private land. The funds were administered by the California office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service; a description of the program is listed on the agency’s website under “success stories.”
“More than 700,000 trees were removed and 190 miles of critical evacuation routes were treated to ensure that critical responders would have safe access routes in case of future fire,” according to the description.
If Southern California communities can receive such assistance, why not Cambria?
When a fire official starts talking about bringing in concrete bunkers to shelter residents from fire, it’s time for urgent action.
It makes far more sense to invest now in prevention — rather than to offer aid only after a fire strikes and a grieving community is trying to recover.