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Emergency road proposal in Cambria sparks a larger discussion about wildfire safety 

A recent proposal to develop a new emergency route out of Cambria that could help evacuating residents during a natural disaster opened up a larger conversation about wildfire safety in the coastal community.

If an evacuation order was announced, evacuees could get to Highway 1 by one of the three emergency access roads in the community. Two are in the Lodge Hill area—where a large portion of the community abuts Highway 1 to the southwest—developed as regularly accessible roads that lead to the highway. The other passes through Fiscalini Ranch.

Although the additional route came up at an Oct. 25 meeting, the conversation about fire safety grew after the Nov. 8 Camp fire swept through Concow—an unincorporated district in Butte County—and the city of Paradise. According to a Los Angeles Times article Nov. 18, a malfunction of a Pacific Gas & Electric Company high-voltage line started a small fire that was carried by high winds. The fire burned up 13,000 homes, 5,000 other structures, killed at least 85 people, and all but destroyed Paradise, trapping residents who were stuck in traffic on the city's exit routes as flames rushed both sides of the roads.

The Times described Paradise's evacuation plans, which consisted of dividing the town into evacuation zones that could be emptied a few at a time. Butte County contracted with a private warning system to alert residents in danger—if they signed up for the service. The velocity of the fire didn't leave enough time for the county to alert its residents to the evacuation; many residents lost power and weren't aware of the danger until the flames were visible.

At the Oct. 25 Cambria Community Services District meeting, Cambria Fire Chief William Hollingsworth said that a private landowner was offering to develop an emergency access road for the community on his property.

The land—held under a trust called BKS Cambria—is located on the south end of town at the site of the former Cambria Air Force Station. Hollingsworth said the district has limited access to emergency roads in the event of an evacuation order, and this could potentially give the district access to another route.

"We were able to put an emergency access across [Fiscalini Ranch], and now we can by order open that up and allow people to go across to Park Hill, so we have another way out," he said.

Hollingsworth brought the proposal to the district with the hope that the district would vote to write a letter in support of the project.

"If you look at this project solely in, do you support the concept of additional egress routes from the community, I think we would unilaterally say yes," Hollingsworth said. "That has to be the opinion of everybody that has any kind of safety mentality, but there are a lot of moving parts to what they are proposing."

The proposed road development is part of a larger project to create a campground on the BKS property; both are still in the planning stage.

The district moved to table the letter of support until officials learn more details about the project.

In 2017, the Cambria Community Services District worked with local consultants to create a multi-jurisdictional hazard mitigation plan. The goal of the plan was to arrive at practical, meaningful, attainable, and cost-effective mitigation solutions to minimize the district's vulnerability to hazards and ultimately reduce both human and financial losses in the event of a disaster.

According to the report, the probability of the community experiencing a wildfire and the likelihood of it occurring more than once is high. Cambria falls into the wildland urban interface, according to the report. The forest and the built environment mingle with one another, making the community vulnerable to forest fires that cross into the urban scape.

This could lead to the destruction of vegetation, property, and wildlife; injury or loss of life to people living in the affected area or using the area for recreational facilities; post fire erosion/mudslides during wintertime rainfall; and air quality impacts to public health.

The report states that wildfires are typically larger and more severe during periods of drought due to the lower fuel moisture content and tree mortality.

The community's susceptibility to fire and its efforts to prevent wildfire have always been on the minds of district officials and residents. In the wake of the tragedy in Butte County, residents are once again speaking out about what can be done to prevent something similar from happening in Cambria.

At a Nov. 15 district meeting, a couple of residents who spoke during public comment voiced their concerns about removing dry brush, grass, and weeds in their neighborhoods. Resident Brenda Gale called for a town hall meeting to come up with a solution. She said her neighborhood is in the center of a dangerous wind zone that could potentially cause fires.

"Something needs to be done fast before tragedy strikes [Cambria] like it did in Paradise," Gale said. Δ

Staff writer Karen Garcia can be reached at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com.

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