The Incident Management Team and fire officials from the San Bernardino National Forest and its San Jacinto Ranger District met Wednesday afternoon, July 24, to arrange the return of authority to the forest the next morning.
The IMT was requested on the first day of the Mountain Fire, July 15. When the team handed the fire back to district staff, the 27,531-acre fire was 91 percent contained with full containment expected shortly.
IMT Commander Jeanne Pincha-Tulley is Tahoe National Forest fire chief. She has been the incident commander of this Type 1 team since 2005. She also is the first woman to achieve this honor. Almost upon being notified of the assignment, she began discussions with the San Bernardino National Forest fire people.
From Tahoe, she was on the phone nearly the entire 10-hour drive, organizing and ordering resources. By the time she arrived Tuesday, already 1,500 people had been mobilized to fight the Mountain Fire. But she felt there still wasn’t enough Hot Shot crews needed to battle this blaze.
“The fire was racing in the wrong direction,” she said, “but there was no right direction.
The IMT’s plan addressed the immediate three days and a five-day sliding plan, she said. By Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, when the full team was in place, Pincha-Tulley said she was always comfortable. “As long as I have options, we can fight it,” she said.
Not only are the moisture levels of the Hill’s vegetation very low, but the steep terrain hindered firefighters as well as abetted the fire in some places. “The topography was so important,” she added. Then on Wednesday, the fire began moving both north toward Idyllwild and south in Garner Valley.
When the fire started creeping, she said, “We weren’t sure where it would go, but we felt we could hold it.” But it was the concern that embers or hot ashes could drift or be propelled into town — spotting — that instigated the evacuation decision. “One danger was that a spot fire near town would cause panic, so we erred on the side of getting everyone out.”
She repeated her team’s praise for the evacuation plans previously developed through the Mountain Area Safety Taskforce.
“The community should be awfully proud of MAST and the fuelbreaks that have been put in place,” she said. “Both made a world of difference. The public responded so well.”
For example, along Idyllwild’s immediate east, she said they created at least three lines of defense — bulldozer lines, retardant lines and hand crews.
The one contingency, for which they couldn’t plan, was rain, which she said did help Sunday. Since the first drops fell, she estimated that 5 to 7 inches may have fallen on the top of the mountain.
“It’s a sea of mud,” Pincha-Tulley noted.
As the IMT prepared to phase out, she stressed that the containment did not mean the fire was out. The old, dry timber might continue to burn, perhaps for months. Meanwhile the forest crews would continue to mop up, including constructing 100 to 250 fire lines. And it would continue to be monitored from the air.
“If it gets hot on an edge, they’ll take aggressive action,” Pincha-Tulley said.
During the fire, the quality of food available to the firefighters was a major concern for Pincha-Tulley. All the support services such as food are provided through national contracts. But with 3,500 firefighters, well above the normal team size, she demanded and got additional food support.
“We didn’t get the quality food that is normally served,” she noted and said that would be addressed for future incidents.
But she did get the attention for aircraft — two DC10s, C130s and many more, the equivalent of a small airforce. “It was an inordinate number of aircraft because of the inordinate possibility of the burn moving toward a major town,” Pincha-Tulley explained.
She wanted to ensure the safety of the firefighters who were on the ground before deploying them. Finally on Saturday, they were able to move Hot Shot crews to the top of the mountain.
The Mountain Fire burned nearly 27,500 acres, the second largest in California this year, and cost more than $25 million to suppress. Besides fires, this IMT has responded to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and others in Florida and to the 9-11 attacks in Pennsylvania.