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Don't get complacent 

Cambria's got more than fire problems, and the forecasted El Niño might not change the situation

Bravo to Jono Kinkade for managing to make (some) sense out of the fire/forest issue in Cambria in the Aug. 20 New Times cover story (“Cutting down catastrophe”). I can see it was a struggle. It’s a struggle shared by most of us who live here in Cambria. Certainly many would be greatly enlightened by reading Kinkade’s piece (only a few attend meetings, and others feel powerless), which was well researched.

I am fortunate that I live only two blocks from Highway 1, the only escape route if there’s a conflagration. A gate leads me to an open, mostly unforested, lot and then on to the highway. However, I am not taking anything for granted—my two forested lots (with Monterey pines, redwood, and cypress) are healthy. But I know I can’t just let them go unattended. I had trimmers cut them back from my wood decks, I’ve removed branches up to 10 feet from the soil, bagged up and recycled accumulating dry pine needles, and watered regularly (I collect and store rainwater and will have a free program on how I do it at my home on Saturday, Sept. 12). I also blow off the roof regularly to get rid of the needles in the gutters. I followed the advice of a young San Diego fire captain who visited here some months ago and did a run-through of my property. That same fire captain was involved in a horrific fire just a week or so later down south. I do hope he’s OK.

Being proactive wherever you are in the unincorporated areas of SLO County—especially in forested areas like Santa Margarita (the parts that haven’t burned), Nipomo, or the hollows of Avila Valley—is paramount. To the credit of my town, we had two fire safety programs early in the season, one of which I attended at our local Vet’s Hall. Almost two dozen different fire or forestry-related agencies were in attendance, and citizens left with plenty of materials on defensible space, reverse 911 numbers, a chipping service being offered for free (I was among the first to sign up), tree trimming services, etc.

Despite individual preparations, a firestorm could devastate Cambria. Former Fire Chief Mark Miller said that if 10 acres burn in one spot, and it gets out of control, “all bets are off.” It is upsetting to me that, as usual, there are debates within governmental or watchdog circles (chiefly county, Cambria Community Services District (CCSD), California Coastal Commission, Fire Safe Council, etc.) about how to proceed to protect (and preserve) the town on a larger scale. When is a permit not a permit to cut dead trees? Answer: when it’s a “land-use authorization,” which the county reluctantly offers. Who’s going to be liable for issuing the “wrong” permits, county or CCSD? Will the average homeowner need to pay up to $1,000 or more to remove a dead tree on his property? No one seems to have clarity on all these issues. (And now our new “desal” plant, designed to provide as much as 30 percent of our potable water, has a lawsuit against it). We don’t want everything to be a case where Nero fiddles while Rome burns ...

The CCSD requires lot owners to cut down their weeds every spring or the CCSD hires contractors and bills the owners. Still, there are vacant parcels owned by out-of-area people (many of whom haven’t been able to build because of a 25-year-long water availability moratorium). So there are always a couple of hundred parcels not dealt with by late spring—and I, for one, start getting nervous.

And weeds on vacant lots are not the only problem. Maybe the definition of “weed” should extend to certain types of trees and shrubs, such as the dead or dying ones that really could feed a firestorm. I know, Monterey pines are sacrosanct, but there are estimates that 20 to 40 percent are now dead or dying. Environmentalist Bill Denneen of Nipomo (a friend of mine) has often called eucalyptus trees “weeds” since they are a non-native species—surely we could start with them. Ironically, I do have one of them on my property—and they are extremely flammable.

I happen to believe that Cambria is not in as much fire danger as other areas of California since our near coastal climate stays relatively cool and, even in the summer, there’s some fog. We’ve seen in the conflagration east of downtown Santa Margarita—and in the several hundred thousand acres that have burned in eastern Washington state (I once owned 5 forested acres there)—what hot, dry, windy weather can do.

Cambria’s fire department has undergone some staff and administrative changes recently (it was taken over by Cal Fire) and many are worried that staffing may be lean, especially when personnel need to travel long distances for more urgent situations. Another former Cambria fire chief, Bob Putney, has even put up a website criticizing the way the transition was made to Cal Fire. I have met both former fire chiefs and certainly believe they have the best interests of the town at heart. The problem partly is: They remain involved, but not at the helm.

There are a lot of Cambrians keeping their fingers crossed that by October there will be some rain. Meteorologists are saying there is a 90 percent chance of a wet, El Niño-type winter. But no one is saying such an event will end our drought, which, in years past, has sometimes gone on for a decade or more. Recent estimates of how much water is available—worst case scenario—have shrunk from seven to three years.

I hope no one is getting complacent at this point.

William L. Seavey is a 10-year Cambria resident and writes a local column on “green savings.” He also writes self-help books for DIY-ers. For more information on a free rainwater harvesting program on Sept. 12, email and leave a physical address for details (a flier is available).

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