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Fire fuel: Cambria still trying to reduce the hazard that dead Monterey pines pose

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Made up of 3,200 acres, Cambria is overshadowed by towering and dried out Monterey pines nearing the end of their lifespan, creating fuel for potential wildfires.

That was the No. 1 bullet point on the San Luis Obispo County grand jury’s report released in March—titled Is It Five Minutes to Midnight in Cambria: An Update on the Risk of Catastrophic Fire. It’s something that the community has known about for years, but despite efforts, those pines remain standing in numbers that haven’t diminished the area’s fire risk. The report points out that the fire risk surrounding the community hasn’t gone away with the rain, highlighting dead and dying trees, issues first responders could have accessing a fire scene, and how the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) is continuing its efforts to decrease the hazard.

“Where the pines meet the sea,” a slogan the community treasures, is apt as it is only one of three native Monterey pine forests in North America and it sits right next to the coast.

But age (they have a lifespan 80 to 90 years), fungus (pine pitch canker), and disease have been eating away at the pines. And those adversaries are combined with the most recent silent killer, drought, said Crosby Swartz, chairman of the Cambria Forest Committee.

“The problem we’re having right now is that the drought has reduced the moisture that’s available to the tree so they tend to be susceptible to various diseases,” he said.

Lack of rainfall in recent years and increased vulnerability to disease has accelerated the trees’ natural process—trees are dying faster than their estimated lifespan.

Those dried out pines can be fuel for a wildfire, but local first responders know how to navigate Cambria in order to provide aid to their community. Dan Turner, business manager of the Fire Safe Council for SLO County, said that Cambria’s Fire Department and the Cal Fire department in the area know the layout of the winding and narrow roads in the community. The issue is if those first responders need assistance as a fire grows. Neighboring fire departments are a significant distance away—Templeton, Atascadero, or Paso Robles for example—and aren’t familiar with the area. Turner said with every minute that it takes for assistance to arrive the fire could spread.

He said the council has come up with a plan for first responders and assisting agencies on the best routes to take when responding to fire. But because Cambria has a limited number of roads, it also limits the evacuation routes residents can use to escape.

Lodge Hill, for example, is where a significant number of homes are in Cambria. Turner said there are only two streets the council’s evacuation plan points to as potential evacuation routes to be used in the event of a wildfire. Those roads are Burton and Ardath Drive.

“A weak link would literally be an accident that would happen at the intersection; it would block that intersection and cut off the entire evacuation route,” he said.

It could also cut off an entryway for the fire department.

But the council can only inform the community and the first responding agencies of the best routes to take in the event of a fire. Coming up with those evacuation plans is just one of the ways that the CCSD is working toward lowering the fire risk in Cambria.

Residents can do their part by removing the dead trees from their properties.

Chopping down a Monterey pine, which can reach heights of up to 124 feet, isn’t an easy task due to their protected status. A homeowner is only allowed to remove a tree if they can prove that it is hazardous or dying. The property owner must take a picture of the tree prior to removal.

Airlin Singewald, senior planner for the SLO County Planning and Building Department, said the homeowner has two options after that: show photos of the hazardous tree to Cal Fire so the agency can verify that it is indeed hazardous and replant the tree. Or they can apply for an after-the-fact hazardous tree removal permit and replant the tree. If the homeowner applies for a hazardous tree removal permit (Cal Fire doesn’t verify that the tree is hazardous), the permit fee is $126 plus $23 for each additional tree.

The fire hazard fuel reduction program is part of the CCSD’s efforts toward reducing fire hazard in the community. The program gives Cambria’s fire department the authority to mandate that homeowners clear their property of weeds and tree debris—but not necessarily mandate clearance of dead trees.

One way the district wants to help dispose of Cambria’s dead trees is by converting that wood into clean energy. The grand jury report stated that the CCSD is looking to purchase a biomass machine that would do just that. The machine takes wood chips, heats them, and breaks down the wood to create gas (hydrogen) and carbon that is turned into energy. Turner said that the machine could consume up to 4 tons of wood chips, creating 150 kilowatts of power, enough to provide electricity for 80 houses.

“It’s carbon negative, so it’s clean energy and it’s helping us solve a massive amount of biomass from the dead forest,“ he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Karen Garcia at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com.

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