Some unfortunate Twin Pines residents lost everything during the Silver Fire. Photo by Jenny Kirchner

From about 2:15 p.m. Wednesday until Sunday evening, a small fire near Poppet Flats Road grew to more than 20,000 acres becoming the newest fire threat on the Hill, requiring another Incident Command Team and thousands of firefighter response.

Before being contained, the Silver Fire destroyed 26 structures that forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents from Poppet Flats to Twin Pines and then portions of desert communities from Banning to Snow Creek.

Within the hour, the Silver Fire was 300 acres and Poppet Flats was under mandatory evacuation. Highway 243 was closed in the area.

The Silent Valley Club RV Park sign spews embers after burning during the Silver Fire. Photo by Jenny Kirchner

Shortly after, the communities of Silent Valley and Twin Pines also were under mandatory evacuation orders and Highway 243 was closed from the Stone Creek community just 3 miles north of Pine Cove to Banning.

By 4:15 p.m., the fire had burned 2,500 acres. With westerly winds blowing in the Banning Pass, the fire was rapidly burning east into the 2006 Esperanza Fire footprint.

By 5 p.m. the fire had two burning fronts, Twin Pines moving east and Poppet Flats, according to Cal Fire Battalion Chief Julie Hutchison, information officer.

The fire had doubled in size and Cal Fire confirmed multiple structures damaged or destroyed in Twin Pines. One injured firefighter was confirmed.

By 6 p.m., according to Hutchison, the Silver Fire was still moving east with “zero” containment, and reports of other firefighter injuries were received.

The rapidly moving fire caused evacuation problems and several residents had to shelter-in-place. “There was no exit for them,” she said.

By 6:30 p.m., as the winds lessened, the fire widened.

She did confirm one badly burned. Later he was identified as a mountain biker who was trapped near the fire’s ignition point.

When Thursday morning dawned, the Silver Fire was estimated at 10,000 acres with no containment. At least 16 structures had been destroyed. At least four firefighters and a civilian were injured.

Many signs in the Silver Fire area burned and lay near their original posts. Photo by Jenny Kirchner

By mid-morning, firefighters had achieved 10 percent containment. But further evacuations were ordered. Boulder Basin and Black Mountain campgrounds on Black Mountain Road were closed through Aug. 15.

About noon Thursday, Silent Valley Club reported it had lost only one structure, the fire truck barn, said General Manager Jo Ann Trosper. The red barn that stores the club’s fire truck was “burned to the ground,” she said. The fire truck was helping fight the fire at the time.

A handful of people and 16 staff members stayed behind during the mandatory evacuation. The fire “came into the campsite but didn’t breach into the park,” said Trosper.

Kelliey Matthews, High Valleys Water District office manager, wrote, “There are many residents in Poppet Flats who were forced to take shelter in place as they were unable to evacuate because of impassable exits. Some residents had no transportation as well.

“A resident arranged with the Department of Health and Welfare to have bottled water delivered to those still on the hill and were then refused by the Department of Health and Welfare due to the mandatory evacuations. All residents are still being asked to leave from the area on the 243 to Hemet.”

The district put into place a boil water order as a precaution from contamination.

Thursday afternoon, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department issued another evacuation warning notice for the lower Cabazon area from Elm East to Snow Creek.

Cal Fire is “trying hard to get it off Black Mountain and out of the forest,” Hutchison said.

On the fire’s second day, Riverside County Executive Office Jay Orr declared a local emergency. Friday, County Supervisors Marion Ashley and Jeff Stone said they would seek county financial relief for Silver Fire property owners who want to rebuild in the aftermath of the wind-driven inferno.

When Friday morning dawned, the Silver Fire had burned more than 16,000 acres but Cal Fire estimated it was about 25 percent contained.

Ashley and Stone said they would likely introduce a proposal at the Aug. 20 board meeting to waive development fees for the rebuilding of damaged or destroyed structures in the declared natural disaster area. The proposal would also cover structures destroyed this past July during the Mountain Fire, which burned in and around Idyllwild.

The Esperanza Engine 57 Memorial survived the Silver Fire where five U.S. Forest Service firefighters died in October 2006. Many Cal Fire firefighters and other units visited the site Sunday, Aug. 11. Photo by Jenny Kirchner

The proposal, if adopted, would emulate a 2006 program that granted fee waivers for the rebuilding of structures destroyed by the deadly Esperanza Fire.

“When people take a hit like this — when they lose their homes — they need a helping hand to rebuild their homes and their lives,” said Fifth District Supervisor Ashley,

The three-year waiver would be contingent upon a state proclamation of “Local Emergency” in the charred communities of Poppet Flats, Twin Pines, Silent Valley, Cabazon, Snow Creek, Idyllwild and surrounding areas. Gov. Jerry Brown issued the state proclamation Friday night.

The waivers would apply only to properties that were not insured or inadequately insured, or not covered by disaster relief.

“The county is very concerned about the loss of property,” said Third District Supervisor Stone. “A lot of these people have minimal insurance or no insurance and the county wants to help residents rebuild and minimize the cost.”

Despite the evacuation, some members of the High Valley Mountain Disaster Preparedness team remained to help, according to John Wilson, one of the members.
“I have too many horses to think about leaving,” he said.

His house was not burned, but he said nine homes in the Rancho Encino neighborhood were burned. It moved through the community and crossed Highway 243 moving east, which the fire continued to do throughout.

Palm Springs Fire Chief John R. Allen told Palm Springs’ residents that night, “Currently there are numerous firefighting resources in the Snow Creek area including four strike teams of engines (20 fire trucks and supervisors), four dozers and firefighting aircraft. Palm Springs Fire Department fire stations are fully staffed and available for normal response within the City of Palm Springs. PSFD is in constant contact with the incident commander and they will advise if the situation changes. The Silver Fire is not within the City of Palm Springs, but has the potential to affect unpopulated areas of the city. Evacuations are not planned for the City of Palm Springs at this time.”

By Friday afternoon, fire officials reported the Silver Fire at about 17,500 acres and 25 percent contained. The fire’s rate of growth had slowed since Wednesday.

One of the major objectives Friday was to secure the fire’s southern boundary to keep it out of the Black Mountain area and the San Jacinto Wilderness. “They have done a really good effort to keep it out of Snow Creek and the wilderness,” Hutchison said.

By Saturday morning, the Silver Fire had burned more than 19,000 acres and was about 47 percent contained. The firefighting force now exceeded 2,100 firefighters and more than 200 engine companies.

The sheriff’s department lifted the evacuation order for Snow Creek, Cabazon, Mt. Edna and Poppet Flats Saturday evening. Twin Pines and the Silent Valley RV Park remained closed due to safety concerns and the ongoing firefighting operations.

The Silent Valley area was being used as a helicopter operation, which was critical to containing the fire along its southern edge, according to Hutchison.

Saturday evening, Poppet Flats residents were allowed to begin returning, Sunday morning, the Twin Pines evacuation order had been lifted, too.

By Monday evening, the fire was 20,292 acres, was 100 percent contained. In all, 12 firefighters and one civilian were injured, and 26 structures were destroyed.

Highway 243 remains closed from Poppet Flats Road to Banning while Caltrans assesses the damage. Caltrans was expected to give a status update Wednesday afternoon. (See page 5 for results of assessment.)

The fire also affected Idyllwild Fire Department’s resources. “We did call in personnel, including paid, reserves and volunteers, in case we were either dispatched to the Silver Fire or to cover station(s) for Riverside County Fire,” said Chief Patrick Reitz. “IFPD was covering for both Pine Cove and Garner Valley for a period of time during the initial attack phase of the fire as mutual aid. IFPD received an order as a result of the fire, meaning we will be reimbursed for our expenses, for a Type 3 Brush Engine to cover Pine Cove and then moved to Garner Valley, prior to being moved into the fire to protect the Snow Creek area.

“Additionally, we provided a Strike Team leader in case there was a need on the Silver or any other fire that may have had a need.”

Editor Becky Clark contributed to this story.