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Preventing flames: A California Coastal Commission-approved project aims to protect Cambria from future fires

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For Cambria resident Lorienne Schwenk, most of the time, power outages aren't a big deal. When a weather event caused parts of the town to lose power on a recent Tuesday, her home and workplace were both affected.

"To me, it's not a nuisance," Schwenk, the director of the Cambria Chamber of Commerce, told New Times. "It's fine, we just adapt."

FIRE DANGER If a fire were to start in Cambria, it could rip through dead and dying Monterey pines and a dense understory of vegetation—something a new project hopes to avoid. - COVER FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY CAL FIRE
  • Cover File Photo Courtesy Of SLO County Cal Fire
  • FIRE DANGER If a fire were to start in Cambria, it could rip through dead and dying Monterey pines and a dense understory of vegetation—something a new project hopes to avoid.

But at the same time, Schwenk said, power outages connote different things now, and that makes her nervous. Sometimes, an outage is caused by an unexpected weather event, like the outage last week. Other times, it's a PG&E initiated Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS).

On Oct. 9, for instance, PG&E announced a widespread statewide PSPS that would begin on Oct. 11 and end the next day, with an estimated 223 SLO County customers expected to be impacted, mostly in Cambria, according to the Cambria Community Services District.

These PSPS events are implemented by PG&E to reduce the risk of wildfire from energized power lines. Trees falling onto power lines are a big fire hazard, and one that worries Schwenk.

"I would love to see more [power lines] going underground, that just seems to make sense," Schwenk said. "We're here with our Monterey pines, and they're a treasure. There's very few places in the world with this pine, and they do fall down sometimes."

If there was a fire, Schwenk has concerns.

"I'm nervous, with only one road out of town, and especially with a lot of elderly folks," she said. "I think the biggest issue for me is communication during an outage. I'm fine lighting candles; meetings can always be rescheduled. I'm just concerned if there was an emergency, how would we know?"

Power line incidents are just one of the ways that fires can get started.

"Most of the fires that occur in the Cambria area are [caused by] human activity," said Dan Turner of the SLO County Fire Safe Council. "There is lightning-caused fire here as well, but those occur only in kind of a narrow window of the year. ... Ninety-plus percent of fires are human-caused."

Human activity includes everything from roadside vehicle activities, to people operating machinery, to trees hitting power lines, and countless other possibilities, Turner said. All it takes is one spark in a drought-ridden or flammable area.

"In fact, a recent fire up there was caused by a tree falling across a power line," Turner said, referring to a fire in San Simeon on the afternoon of Oct. 11. At the time, PG&E reported more than 1,200 customers in the area without power.

Fire risk is growing in Cambria and other parts of the North Coast, namely due to unhealthy forests that allow for more intense fires.

"The forest is really not in good condition at all, from disease and too many plants per acre. There's just not enough water, other nutrient resources, to support that many plants," Turner said. "The trees are really stressed, and it doesn't take much to push them over the edge."

INVASIVE The dwarf mistletoe growing on a Monterey pine is a parasite to native forests that can cause severe damage—it's one of the invasive species the Coastal Commission-approved Covell Ranch project is trying to mitigate. - PHOTO COURTESY OF COASTAL COMMISSION STAFF REPORT
  • Photo Courtesy Of Coastal Commission Staff Report
  • INVASIVE The dwarf mistletoe growing on a Monterey pine is a parasite to native forests that can cause severe damage—it's one of the invasive species the Coastal Commission-approved Covell Ranch project is trying to mitigate.

The Monterey pine, found in Cambria and just three other places in the world, is a fire-dependent tree. But in the absence of typical fire patterns, it's highly susceptible to intense fires that could threaten not only the forest but also the Cambria community.

"Historically what would have happened, before European settlers came here, you would have indigenous burning periodically, and you would have lightning fires periodically," Turner said. "That would burn through the forest and remove a lot of the understory, open it up."

But as things stand today, "there's this huge buildup." It's so bad that a prescribed burn, right now, is off the table.

"There's no way we could do that right now, because the intensity of the fire would be such that [it would be] uncontrollable," Turner said.

To address these issues, the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District submitted a public works plan (PWP) to the California Coastal Commission, "comprising a 10-year vegetation treatment program to enhance ecosystems and improve wildfire resilience ... within the San Luis Obispo County coastal zone region that stretches from the boundary with Monterey County in the north to the northern border of the city of Morro Bay in the south," the Commission agenda stated.

The commission approved the PWP at its Oct. 15 meeting, as well as the first project within the plan: the Covell Ranch project.

This 665-acre forest health restoration project will happen on a privately owned ranch on the outskirts of Cambria that has a conservation easement held by the Nature Conservancy. Collaborators include the SLO County Fire Safe Council and Cal Fire.

"We know that Covell Ranch, the actual habitat for Monterey pines, that ecosystem has evolved over time with the presence of fire," Coastal Commission Environmental Scientist Dr. Mary Matella explained. "The whole project is intended to kind of mimic what a natural fire would be like. ... What we're trying to do is make sure we don't have an extreme fire that gets up to the tops of the trees and burns really hot."

The plan, Matella said, is to use mechanized treatment to clear out the understory in a way that fire might have in the past.

"By doing that, it also provides protection to the community, by reducing the likelihood of catastrophic fire in the community," Turner, from the Fire Safe Council, said.

Some nearby residents are concerned about the use of mechanical mastication, the use of machinery to clear the forest's overly dense understory. Crosby Swartz, president of Cambria Forest Committee, and Laura Swartz live about a mile from the proposed project.

"The use of this technique to save money does not change the fact that important native vegetation and animal habitat will be cut down in addition to the target dead material," Crosby said during public comment.

"Obviously, we all desire fire safety, but at what cost to the natural environment?" Laura added. "Disrupting the ecosystem excessively will tend to fail in the long run, creating hotter, drier, more deadly conditions."

Commission staff acknowledged these concerns.

"It's a balancing act," Steve Auten, a professional forester working on the project, said at the Oct. 15 meeting. "When we think about these systems and the importance of the Monterey pine forest ... . It's not a massive shift that we're going for. We're recognizing that we're a part of the system."

Dr. Jonna Engel, a senior ecologist with the Coastal Commission, said "there's not going to be this excessive removal of trees."

"The primary goal of the project is to strategically remove excess saplings, and to remove all invasive species and some, not all, native understory to create a mosaic of continuous native understory and open space that more approximates natural fire return interval conditions," Engel said at the meeting. "I'm really confident that this is going to be a great project." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at mmartin@newtimesslo.com.

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