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Tinder by the Sea: Cambria and SLO County officials scurry to address fire dangers posed by a dying forest 

View a video about the current fire situation in Cambria.

In Cambria, where a hazardous mix of conditions has elevated fire risks, officials are facing a steep uphill battle.

The village of roughly 6,500 people, affectionately called “Pines by the Sea,” is surrounded by one of three remaining Monterey pine stands in the United States. Several factors have already sparked a decline in the forest’s health, but the effects of a four-year long drought have worsened the situation, leaving a forest that is showing much less green and much more reddish-brown. Experts have estimated that the forest is experiencing a 40 percent mortality rate—in some pockets it is as high as 80 percent. That’s a steep increase from the historical 10 percent mortality rate. Cambria Fire Department (CFD) Chief Mark Miller said he first noticed the increased impacts in the fall of last year.

Now the very flammable situation is of great concern as officials try to stay in front of the threat. Along the way, removing thousands of trees standing intact as firewood will be a challenging and expensive proposition.

- BE PREPARED:  A community forum on fire prevention and preparedness will be held at the Cambria Vets Hall on April 9 from 6 to 9 p.m. The Cambria Fire Department will also have an open house at the station on May 9. -
  • BE PREPARED: A community forum on fire prevention and preparedness will be held at the Cambria Vets Hall on April 9 from 6 to 9 p.m. The Cambria Fire Department will also have an open house at the station on May 9.

“The situation here, to remove all the dead and dying trees, is a monumental problem, and it’s not something that’s easily solved, and it’s going to take some financial clout to do it,” Miller said.

The CFD and CalFire are pursuing several fire prevention and mitigation methods, but their jurisdiction stops at a person’s property line—which adds yet another problem, considering there are swaths of trees dying on private lots. Whether an agency can mandate residents to clear dead wood or cut down trees, and how such a move would be paid for, is a big question, especially because there are several restrictions that limit the spending of public funds on private lands.

San Luis Obispo County CalFire Chief Robert Lewin addressed this challenge while detailing the situation to the Board of Supervisors at a March 24 drought update.

“The elephant in the room is how do you pay for this, how do you use public funds on private land?” Lewin said. “That’s something we’re working on. We have to work hard on this, and it will not be solved this fire season.”

Tree removal is expensive, but, as an integral part of the picture, it needs to happen. Cambria Fire Department Chief Miller said his department estimated average removal costs to be about $1,200 to $1,300 per tree, but this figure can climb up to $3,000 or $4,000 for the more difficult, time-intensive trees to remove.

Miller echoed Lewin’s sentiment while reporting to the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) on March 26.

“We understand that that could be an economic burden to the community,” Miller said. “We want to be user friendly, we don’t want to be heavy handed, but at the same time we need to stay on top of the situation.

“It’s that old adage of how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” he told New Times. “It comes back to that. We need to get started somewhere.”

Following a March 17 grand jury report that detailed the situation and urged action, the CCSD unanimously voted to declare a local emergency and recommended that the Board of Supervisors take up the issue and declare a more formal state of emergency. A date isn’t yet set for the supervisors to hear the issue.

The pine forests are under attack by a trio of deadly challenges. Trees have been increasingly infected with the fungal disease pine pitch canker, partly believed to spread with the help of beetles that feed on the trees’ woody tissue. Trees are also being infested with dwarf mistletoe. Finally, a century without fire has left a lot of dead wood behind and has hindered the pines’ fire-dependent regeneration process.

Management of the forest to simulate natural processes hasn’t always been an option, as several community members have been insistent that it be left alone.

“It’s basically been loved to death,” Miller said. “The idea has been ‘hands off, you can’t cut any trees, you can’t do anything to it, you just leave it alone and it will take care of itself.’”

Now stands a forest rife with dead trees and dry limbs cluttering the ground. French broom, a highly flammable invasive species, has colonized much of the forest floor.

The problem is not entirely the fault of environmental factors; several community-related and logistical challenges specific to Cambria entangle the situation. Most lots are small, offering little ground to be cleared as defensive space; many older houses aren’t up to code; and in response to the ongoing water shortage, irrigating outdoor landscapes with potable water has been banned in Cambria, causing landscapes to transform from a naturally fire-resistant state to dead or dry plants lying in wait as fuel.

As far as response measures, the community is largely inhabited by elderly people who may have limited mobility, and tourists and vacationers aren’t necessarily likely to be plugged into the reverse 911 warning system and the online notification service Nixle, which depend on mobile phones and the Internet. In the event of an evacuation, there are only two ways out after navigating the community’s steep hills, sharp corners, and pine-lined streets: going north or going south on Highway 1.

And, aside from the CFD and CalFire, which keeps a station in town, help is at least half an hour away. But crews in Cambria are prepared to do what they have to do for that half hour.

As this article goes to press, Miller and Lewin are meeting with several stakeholders and agencies to devise a game plan. Being ready for whatever comes their way is the bottom line.

“We’re going to do everything we can to have the resources to prevent a fire from escaping,” Lewin told New Times. “We’re going to try to have enough resources there to prevent a fire from getting out of control.”


Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade at


-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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