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.
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.