Local fire and public safety officials convened their quarterly Mountain Area Safety Taskforce (MAST) session last Wednesday, Aug. 10.

Fortunately, no significant or major fires have occurred on the Hill this fire season. The July 14,000-acre Eagle Fire in north San Diego County was the closest and the involved officials requested consultation with Riverside County’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) and the Sheriff’s Department Emergency Response Team.

“We were asked to help at the Eagle Fire with contingency planning when there was a possibility of it entering Riverside County,” said Gina Moran-McGough, emergency services coordinator for county OES. “The MAST pre-planning and decision-making were a great tool.”

Much of the meeting was devoted to discussing changes and information needed for the new MAST website that Riverside County Fire Department Battalion Chief Bill Weiser and Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council (MCFSC) Executive Director Edwina Scott are building.

“We are grinding,” reported Melanie Gerber, from the Riverside County Waste Management Department. “Last month it was more than 1,500 tons.”

It was announced that Idyllwild Fire Chief Norm Walker will be making a presentation at the Aug. 23 MCFSC meeting. He will discuss the benefits of fuel breaks and defensive space that he observed during his time at the June Wallow Fire in Arizona. This session will be at the Idyllwild Fire Station.

Among the Forest Service fire officials at Wednesday’s meeting was Shawna Legarza, the new fire chief for the San Bernardino National Forest (SBNF). She is from Durango, Colo., and said the Hill, especially Garner Valley, reminded her of her youth on a Colorado cattle ranch.

She reported Forest Service fire teams were fully staffed and they were beginning to see fire activity moving up the mountain to higher elevations.

But her Deputy Rocky Opliger reported the Forest Service had recently canceled its air tanker contract with Aero Union of Sacramento.

In an official press release, Forest Service officials said the termination was “because the company failed to meet its contractual obligations. The company was providing six air tankers under exclusive-use contracts to the Forest Service.”

Opliger assured the group that the Forest Service still had air attack resources at both San Bernardino and Hemet-Ryan airports. They also have access to the DC-10 supertanker if it were needed.

In other budget-related information, Mary Beth Najera, SBNF director of resources and restoration, discussed declining funding for the forest’s fuels program. (See accompanying chart). Since 2008, funding has dropped more than 95 percent. The large levels in 2008 and 2009 are partially attributable to the bark beetle infestation during the past decade and the fire siege of 2003.

Nevertheless, experienced firefighters, such as Idyllwild Chief Walker, described how the inadequate funding for fuel break maintenance essentially allowed this protection to grow back in 1990s.

Locally, San Jacinto Ranger District Forester Hal Carey said that there are several slash piles ready to be burned this winter and he expected several small timber sales may occur in the future. District Fire Chief Dan Felix discussed the recent use of the masticator as a tool to help maintain the district’s fuel break system.

Riverside County Fire Department’s recent work is focused on maintaining the Red Hill Fuel Break, according to Weiser. “We’re also still working at Stone Creek with the state parks.”

Funding for the San Bernardino National Forest fuel break program

Fiscal Year $ in millions
2008 $38.5
2009 32.0
2010 4.6
2011 2.5
2012 1.6 projected
2013 1.4 projected