Capt. Scot Collins, Hemet Station commander of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, was prepared from experience for policing the mountain communities during the Mountain Fire that began Monday, July 15, in Mountain Center. That experience and the plans the Mountain Area Safety Taskforce formulated helped direct evacuation, kept the community residences and businesses safe from looters and, after evacuation, netted arrests of several persons with outstanding warrants who had refused to leave.
“Deputies asked questions of anyone who had refused to evacuate and was still walking or riding a bicycle around town, getting to know who they were,” said Collins. “We picked up four people in Idyllwild on outstanding arrest warrants.”
Collins said that the already-developed MAST grid evacuation plan aided his department immeasurably. “They had developed neighborhood grids and we had all that information in books,” he noted. “Every team had their books. We went door-to-door to 2,800 residences. Peter [Lent] and Gina [Moran McGough of county Office of Emergency Services] helped as did the reverse 911 call system.”
Collins mentioned that residents’ advance warning of the fire’s growing danger, through social media, Mountain Disaster Preparedness’ network, online and print reporting in the Town Crier, and WNKI broadcasts had alerted residents that evacuation was possible if not likely. “Eighty percent of the community had already left when we went door to door.” He estimated that 5 percent of the populace stayed behind.
“A lot of our effectiveness was also about being lucky,” said Collins. He noted that the two days from Monday when the fire started to mandatory evacuation on Wednesday gave his department sufficient time to beef up to the 200 personnel eventually deployed. Department personnel came from many county patrol stations, served in Mobile Field Force Teams of one sergeant and 11 deputies and staffed road closures, conducted door-to-door evacuation notifications, posted evacuation policing to prevent looting, and orderly repopulated, beginning with residents first.
“At the peak of our activity, we had 100 people working at one time,” said Collins. “It would be hard to have looting with that many personnel in the area. I think our presence helped discourage that.” Collins stressed he could not be certain there was no looting, since part-timers sometimes discover that weeks or months later, but he knew of none at the time.
When reminded that deputies asked residents who refused to evacuate for contact information for their next of kin and dentist, Collins said, “That was on my order. It’s not just a scare tactic, it’s the truth. With fire, bodies can be so badly burned that dental records are all we have for identification. Getting that information in advance helps expedite notification of family.”
Collins’ experience heading a squad of 50 deputies working the Rice Canyon Fire near Fallbrook in 2007 had impressed him with the need to have solid repopulation as well as evacuation plans in place. He knew how important it was to have a well-conceived repopulation plan and adequate trained deputies in place at pre-chosen reentry points when residents began returning.
He said returning Idyllwild residents, passing through checkpoints at Cranston Ranger Station, Banning High School and Lake Hemet Market, were orderly and very appreciative of his department’s work. “People don’t react negatively to checkpoints and entry requirements if they recognize there has been a well thought out and orchestrated plan in place,” he said.
“I’m proud of what our deputies did, but the heroes are the firefighter hand crews and hot shot crews,” he said. “I saw those guys at the chow stations. They’re so fit. They’re the Navy Seals of firefighters — to go uphill through difficult and inaccessible terrain lugging 50 pounds of equipment in dangerous conditions, they’re the heroes.”