In the wake of four fires in the San Jacinto Mountains, and a day before the Little Fire erupted, the fifth fire, State Assemblyman Brian Nestande (R-Palm Desert) held a policy roundtable last Friday on fire suppression. Nestande convened the session to hear different ideas and thoughts about the best methods to avoid fire damage in the future.

Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins discussed the efforts to control the Mountain and Silver fires — both more than 20,000 acres — and protect lives and property from the fires’ flames.

University of California, Riverside, Professor Richard Minnich, a fire ecology expert, discussed his research on the history of fires in the Southern California mountains and his analysis of these fires compared to fires in the Baja California, Mexican region, just to the south.

Besides describing the response to the two local fires, Hawkins also discussed the efforts directed at the Falls Fire near Lake Elsinore.

“Since May 1, there have been six major fires in Riverside County,” he began. “About 57,000 acres have been burned.”

The protection and safety of lives is Cal Fire’s first objective, then it focuses on community and individual properties. The next major objective is protection of the environment, Hawkins said.

“The [Mountain Fire’s] threat to Idyllwild was real,” Hawkins affirmed. Consequently, to protect lives, the unified command decided to implement the evacuation announced on July 17. Fortunately, the Office of Emergency Services’ preparation efforts, which were coordinated through the Mountain Area Safety Taskforce, had an evacuation plan ready. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Office simply implemented the plan.

“I’ve never seen an evacuation go as smoothly as it did in Idyllwild,” Hawkins said. “That evening there was a single lane of traffic to Hemet. The preparedness was proved.”

To protect the Hill, nearly 200,000 gallons of fire retardant were dropped and for all of these fires, the total is more than 700,000 gallons of retardant. Hawkins also stressed the value of Hemet-Ryan Air Base’s proximity to the Hill. “If we had to fly from March Air Base, the number of drops would have been half,” he told the group.

Including the Falls Fire, cost to battle these blazes approached $40 million and is shared by the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire.

After hearing Hawkins’ description of the response to the fires, Nestande asked, “Fires are going to happen. Is there something different we could do?”

Minnich discussed the history of fire in the San Jacinto Mountains back to the 1880s and compared its behavior and results with his research in Mexico. Acknowledging the critical role of weather, particularly winds, he recommended that fire agencies undertake or permit more burns each year — 2 percent of the landscape annually.

Minnich argued that historically, about in 50-year cycles, these mountains would burn less intensely and the fire would continue to burn for longer times. He also emphasized the increased hazard of the European grasses invading the mountain’s foothills and lower slopes since the 1930s.

Grazing the grassy slopes was Minnich’s recommendation to reduce its fire risk.

Minnich’s research indicates that the trend of fall fires spurred by the Santa Ana winds is a recent development. Before the middle of the 20th century, he found few reports of fires during the fall season.

“We [Cal Fire] do have 100-plus years of aggressive firefighting,” responded Cal Fire’s San Diego Unit Chief Thom Porter. “It’s a way of life. Culturally people living in Southern California expect this.”

Despite the reliance on Cal Fire and the Forest Service, preventive actions such as fuelbreaks are badly under funded, said Mike Esnard, Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council president.

Establishing the 100-foot defensible space around homes is important, Esnard stated, but he recommended that Nestande consider expanding the requirement to 150 feet. In addition, he asked for some assistance to achieve greater compliance from owners of vacant properties.