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As vegetation dries out, fire experts express concern about high-risk wildfire communities

Our hills are still green after all the rain we had over the winter, but that fresh vegetation is already starting to dry out, adding to the already high fire risk in parts of San Luis Obispo County.

KSBY spoke with experts to learn how they’re assessing the fire risks in our area and which spots are the most dangerous if a fire were to break out.

When Steve Almond took over his family’s ranch in Creston, he says fire danger was on the top of his mind.

“We are very concerned here because the chamise came in and just literally took over the property,” Almond said.

With more than 700 acres to monitor, Almond took it upon himself to get more involved with fire prevention before disaster happened on his ranch.

Almond is now working alongside CAL FIRE San Luis Obispo Unit Forester Alan Peters on a fire plan that could create a major fire break if a wildfire were to start on or near his property.

“(Alan) said this is perfect, we’ve been trying to do some stuff on the east side of 229 cause when the fires go, they typically come from the southwest and they roll. If you can eliminate the structure and all the energy like we want to do, then if a fire does start, say by the side of the road, we can stop it right there and it won’t have anything to burn,” Almond explained.

CAL FIRE SLO is hoping more homeowners in the county will take initiative in fire prevention while the risks of a major wildfire continue to be high for many communities in our area.

“Since we’re in California, we know many of our communities, several of our cities like Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Cambria and many other areas, are potential areas for large, damaging fires because of built-up fuel and excessive vegetation,” Peters said.

CAL FIRE maps from 2007 designated areas across San Luis Obispo County from low to high fire risk, taking into consideration factors like topography and weather.

According to the maps, places like Cambria and Paso Robles are in high fire risk areas, while cities like Atascadero straddle both high and very high risk.​

While the department is in the process of making new maps, they say the areas with high fire risk are still accurate close to 12 years later.

A recent investigation from the Associated Press also found that these maps may help predict areas that could be impacted by future, potentially catastrophic wildfires, like last year’s Camp Fire in Paradise.

Cal Poly professor Dr. Chris Dicus believes San Luis Obispo County is “overdue” for a major wildfire.

“This year we’re going to be at elevated risk even with the increased rainfall we had just this last year. With this giant grass crop that’s painting the hills this gorgeous green, within the next month it’s going to be brown and that large grass load that’s going to be dead is going to carry fires very readily into communities,” Dicus explained.

Dicus studies fire behaviors and is collaborating with several different groups across California to learn more about what makes homes susceptible to fires. He’s worried for communities in our area that are filled with older homes.

“We have places in San Luis Obispo (County) that are at really high risk for mass devastation. I think about Cambria and the situation they have there where there are older homes with fire-prone vegetation and it has the potential to be very destructive,” Dicus said.

Cambria firefighters tell us, “Cambria certainly finds itself in a precarious situation regarding the potential for a large-scale vegetation fire impacting life and property.”

Firefighters say one concern is how long it would take for resources to arrive to Cambria, which could allow a fire to grow rapidly.

Cambria resident Jim Major says he’s pretty confident his home would be safe.

“We’re always aware of the possibility of fires. We have evacuation routes planned although we have one road going in and out, so it’s a bit of a concern but not overly so. The roads are very well maintained and PG&E is here quite frequently doing trimming of the trees where the lines are running,” Major said.

Dicus recommends that people who own older homes add windows and siding that are fire resistant.

“Even doing little steps like putting mesh over the vents over your attic that would keep embers out,” he explained.

“We all in California have to be cognizant of all of our activities that could in any way start a fire. We have to all do our due diligence to make sure we don’t cause a fire,” Peters said.

Cambria Fire says it hired four additional reserve firefighters ahead of fire season and that they’ve worked with CAL FIRE to come up with a plan to respond to a large fire or other disaster.

In the meantime, there are several new state bills that are dramatically increasing the funding for fire prevention and new fire technologies.

CAL FIRE SLO says this increase in funds will help them be more aggressive with reducing fuel loads in strategic locations. ​

Melissa Newman

Melissa Newman

Melissa Newman is a multi-media journalist for KSBY News. You can send her story ideas at mnewman@ksby.com.
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