This photo was taken from the edge of Living Free Animal Sanctuary on Monday. Photo courtesy of Clay Helgren

Martha Pearson and her staff opened the Mountain Center Cafe early at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday as a source of meals for local people, fire-stranded visitors and firefighters from all over.

Although the Mountain Fire began Monday afternoon in Mountain Center, no structures or businesses in that community were physically damaged. According to Pearson, the fire started across the road and down a bit from her cafe. Vegetation burned around them, but her cafe was untouched by the flames.

“We served about 100 firefighters this morning,” Pearson said on Tuesday. “Most of them got food to go.”

The Mountain Center Cafe was only recently opened by the Pearsons, serving breakfasts and lunches. “We’re not generally open in the evenings,” said Pearson, “but we’ll stay open as long as they need us.”

Pearson retrieved her own daughter and five other children from a nearby home school and kept them at her restaurant until one of the parents could relocate them to Pine Springs Ranch.

Clay Helgren at Living Free Animal Sanctuary could not praise firefighters and local residents enough for saving both the animals and the sanctuary property.

“It was amazing,” he said.“As soon as a plume of smoke was visible, residents from Garner Valley were here in a flash.” He said they came with trucks, trailers and animal carriers.

Helgren said they removed all 96 cats, 45 dogs and three sheep to safe overnight locations in Garner Valley. “The sheep stayed with some folks who could wrangle,” he said, “but you can’t wrangle cats.” There were scratches and bleeding from the cats, he noted, but the dogs just took everything in stride.

Fire officials allowed him to bring back all the animals on Tuesday, provided they were ready to move again quickly should the wind shift.

All Living Free structures were saved. “We had made our buildings defendable, and the firefighters were incredible,” Helgren said. The fire skirted along the property line of one side of Living Free property and only fanned out as it left their property and headed toward Lake Hemet, he said.

“It was like God threw a blanket down over our property as the flames went by,” Helgren said.

Helgren also said that Idyllwild Animal Rescue Friends and the people of Idyllwild were also amazing. They spread the word that Living Free needed animal carriers and a whole caravan of Idyllwilders traveled Highway 243 with them. Unfortunately, they were not allowed past the road closure, but Helgren was extremely appreciative of their efforts.

The fire burned close to Dore's Mountain Art Garden in Mountain Center, where this photo was taken Monday. Courtesy Richard Service.

Metal sculptor Dore Capitani said three small fires broke out on his property. “The firefighters were great,” he said. “They got all three fires out.” He gave them 5,000 gallons of water from his own tanks to refill their trucks.

Capitani said his business was unhurt except for there being no customers during the road closure. “But we’re always open,” he added.


  1. Sadly, Idyllwild businesses were not spared by this fire. I encourage all business owners to re-invigorate some form of united business group to advertise to flat-landers to come visit Idyllwild. Also, for the people who live off-hill, spend some money up here. We will need it more than ever. Fires are never good for business in the long run.

    The Idyllwild businesses have everything from lumber to pizza. If you intend to come for a hike or overnight camping trip, and want to see the same great local shops with wonderful food, apparel, groceries, etc., then spend a few dollars when you get here and the local folks will be able to stay in business and keep offering great service and product well beyond the years it takes nature to repair the fire damage.

    • I was careful to write in the second paragraph that no businesses in Mountain Center were PHYSICALLY damaged. I’m afraid that Mr. Johnson’s comment (“Sadly, Idyllwild businesses were not spared by this fire.”) might unintentionally create the impression that some Idyllwild businesses burned down and were lost. Not so.

      Not a leaf was burned, and not a structure physically damaged anywhere in Idyllwild. A tourist visiting Idyllwild will see no indication anywhere in town that a fire even happened nearby. Thoughtlessly suggesting otherwise can have long-term negative effects on tourism here, which I would hate to see, particularly since I have a business here myself.

      Of course businesses were financially hurt by being closed for five days—mine was one of them—but I’m afraid that persons reading Mr. Johnson’s comment might think that some businesses were lost due to physical fire damage. Not so at all. Not a one.

      We’re all still here.

      • I apologize for implying any business physically burned down. I meant my comments as a warning to business owners (of which I also am one) who serve Iyllwild that now is the time to come together and promote the town.

        We have suffered a week of very detrimental publicity. We will also suffer the effects of the fire for years to come—hikers, backpackers, campers, whatever, spin it any way you want—when you get to the ridge there will be a burn area. There will be significant loss of trails, places to explore.

        Idyllwild currently lacks a group business organization to pool funds, efforts, and coordinate strategy for promoting the town. I would like to see that change as fast a possible to counter what has been a “rough” week.

        Let’s figure this out. We need a new Chamber of Commerce type organization. Call it a business round-table. Call it a business club. But acting as a group, we can go a lot further right now than as individuals.

        We always have some level of business uncertainty up here. Let this fire unite us and we will get through it. We are currently without a Chamber of Commerce. I would like to see that change—even if we just call it something else.

        And Jack, I spent money on your business last week because I wanted to support it. I will spend more in the future for the same reason.

        Norm Johnson