“Wildfire Preparedness Day” took place on a peaceful Saturday morning. The Veteran’s Hall filled with a mix of community members and emergency services professionals, as well as citizen-staffed emergency response teams and experienced building contractors who brought information and expertise to help us prepare for emergencies. Wildfire is a significant threat, but many of the conditions the community might experience during an earthquake or even a tsunami were addressed in this three-hour session.
With all of these risks factors as background, the Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group, under the leadership of Chair David Pierson, put together a program that took these issues on, and delivered practical, factual information and strategies to help the community prepare for and respond to catastrophic effects of a disaster, primarily wildfire.
The Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group is a local focus group of the San Luis Obispo County Fire Council, which is a County focus group of the California State Fire Safe Council. The Fire Safe Council is comprised of stakeholders in community fire prevention and especially wildland fire pre-planning, community education and preparedness. The Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group was established to improve local fire safety, especially from wildland fire. Their mission is to mobilize Cambrians to protect our community, homes, businesses, and environment from wildfire.
Wildfire is a genuine threat to California. Cambria’s location presents additional challenges to emergency response, particularly fire. Within the forested areas, drought has taken a severe toll on many native Monterrey pines, adding significant fuel to a potential fire. Homes and open fields share the landscape, with mixed conditions of well-maintained lots running into overgrown fields of weeds and scrub.
Neighborhoods are embedded into wooded, hilly terrain served by narrow, winding streets. Most of the local roads are paved, though those that are not are somewhat difficult to drive at anything more than a slow mosey. During an emergency evacuation, getting out of a neighborhood and on to the main feeder street can quickly become a nightmare. Hundreds of residents would be making the same dash to safety.
With the threat of wildfire most likely driving people to the south, the main road – scenic Highway 1, would quickly become filled with cars, overwhelming the capacity and adding minutes and hours to any evacuation.
Sitting along the wondrous California Highway 1, Cambria is often a stopping point for visitors making the legendary drive up the coast, through Big Sur, and beyond. Hearst Castle, visible from parts of town, draws hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. All of the added cars and bodies to the region underscores a significant concern for residents and emergency services personnel alike. The 1 is the only major route in and out of the area, and it can quickly become a chokepoint during an emergency. Recent roadwork brought this home like an earthquake, as many community members found themselves caught in standstills as portions of the road were closed to allow road crews to do their work, Normal 15-minute runs became hours-long crawls.
Evacuating a Neighborhood
The evacuation scenario for Beautiful Cambria took center stage. Dan Turner of the San Luis Obispo Fire Safe Council presented the preliminary results of a study conducted by Cal Poly Professor Cornelius Nuworsoo and his transportation and engineering students. The report initially focuses on the Lodge Hill area of Cambria, and uses population data, infrastructure (roads and streets) conditions and traffic flow modeling to determine how efficiently a mass evacuation could be executed. The results are gasp-inducing. Best case estimates project a three to four-hour window to evacuate the residents of the neighborhood.
The good news, given the seriousness of the information, is that residents now have an acute awareness of what they might face in a crisis. With that awareness comes the opportunity and the mandate to become better educated on preparedness and response planning. Combined with the information and resources provided by all the event participants, Cambrians who take action will increase their chances of getting through a disaster reasonably intact.
The study will continue, expanding into other neighborhoods in the Cambria/San Simeon area. The information gathered to date, and all that will follow, will inform the thinking and planning of professionals and citizens alike, and lead to better, more effective evacuation and fire-safe space planning.
The opening session featured Steve Crawford, a very talented (and brave) representative from PG&E. This segment could have gone a few different ways, as PG&E has been found responsible for starting deadly and devastating wildfires in California. Steve had the unenviable task of educating the community on the comprehensive strategy the utility was following to reduce the risks of accidental fire events caused by their equipment.
One of the key strategies PG&E will be following will be proactively shutting power distribution off in the event of hazardous conditions, such as high wind events that might cause trees, power poles and high tension wires to fall, spark and ignite a fire.
Mr. Crawford did a great job of explaining technical, operational, and situational scenarios, and the processes that would be used to manage power shutoffs. His presentation answered a lot of questions and gave the audience critical information that will help them better manage through a power outage.
All The Information
Cambria Fire Chief William Hollingsworth closed the formal program with an unveiling of the newly-created North Coast Emergency Preparedness website. The chief has been leading a team tasked with designing and implementing a comprehensive, real-time web tool that would provide access to all the information people might need to prepare and respond to emergency conditions. The site contains links to just about any agency, report, and how-to guide a concerned resident might need. The site is accessible on mobile, desktop and tablet platforms and browsers. Every resident should bookmark this site, and it should be promoted by local businesses, hotels, and services organization.
We Are In This Together
Beautiful Cambria is America in a small container. There are many opinions on many topics. There are minor disagreements, and there are sometimes harsh conflicts between passionate proponents and equally excited opponents. Friction can be uncomfortable, but it can also be a catalyst for positive action. The citizens who sit on committees or represent the community in elected positions, and who go to meetings and voice their opinions make the community work. And when the going gets rough, people join hands and get to work.
Beautiful Cambria. Beautiful Cambrians.