Editor’s note: This week, the Town Crier revisits just six of the top stories of 2013.
Idyllwild evacuated for Mountain Fire
Monday afternoon, July 15, the Mountain Fire began burning near Highway 243 in Mountain Center. The fire began on the west side of Highway 243 but quickly jumped the road and began blazing through the U.S. Forest Service Keenwild Ranger Station area.
By Wednesday, July 17, local fire officials implemented an evacuation of Idyllwild and Mountain Center. Apple Canyon had been evacuated the first day. Pine Cove was not included in the evacuation.
Four days later, Sunday, July 21, the evacuation had lifted. Residents began returning to their homes. But the fire had burned more than 27,300 acres. Property and structural losses were limited to the Apple Canyon area. In fact, severe rain showers, which helped officials lift the evacuation, added to the damage and losses in Apple Canyon.
Immediately after the fire started in Mountain Center, flames and smoke could be seen just below the Forest Service’s Keenwild helicopter site and along the road at the front of the station.
Local fire officials quickly established a unified Incident Command, led by Forest Service Fire Chief Dan Felix of the San Jacinto Ranger District and Riverside County Division Chief David Fulcher.
By that evening, a decision was made to request a Type 1 Incident Management Team. The unit began arriving and assembling Tuesday evening and took control of battling the blaze.
To combat the fire that was moving quickly and in difficult-to-access areas, fire officials promised “to paint the Mountain red.” Air tankers, nearly a dozen, dropped thousands of gallons of fire retardant from Wellman and Strawberry Cienaga areas through Saddle Junction and down South Ridge for days.
Eventually, the IMT felt it was fighting two fires — one on the southern edge and one on the northern flank closer to Idyllwild. To the immediate east of Idyllwild, firefighters created at least three lines of defense — bulldozer lines, retardant lines and hand crews.
Fire team officials held a press conference in Idyllwild, Thursday afternoon. Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, Incident Management Team commander, told the assembled media corps and public that the Mountain Fire was the number one fire priority in the nation.
While firefighters had gained traction on the southern and western edges of the fire, a heavy inversion that morning had prevented a retardant saturation of the wilderness area north and south of Saddle Junction. “There’s no clear target,” Pincha-Tulley lamented.
Meanwhile, fire officials were worried that winds would carry burning embers from the forest into the town, starting structure fires. Idyllwild was not the team’s only threatened community. The fire moved east and was only 2 miles from Palm Springs.
Two hotshot crews used the Palm Springs Tramway to enter the backcountry and began work on the northern tip of the Mountain Fire. These were the first units in that area.
The mandatory Idyllwild evacuation was quickly deemed a success, according to Riverside County Sheriff’s Capt. Scot Collins. One important reason was the existence of fire plans, including evacuation plans, which the Mountain Area Safety Taskforce had prepared over the past several years. Their existence saved much time, according to Pincha-Tulley.
Although the town of Idyllwild, about 3,800 people, had been evacuated, a mobile city of about 3,500 people was quickly constructed in Garner Valley. Mountain Fire City was a company town of nearly 3,300 firefighting professionals.
Finally, rain fell on the Mountain Fire Sunday morning. That afternoon, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office, led by Collins of the Hemet Station, held a press conference at the Lake Hemet station to formally announce lifting the evacuation order for Idyllwild and Fern Valley, and an evacuation warning for Pine Cove.
“The rain is our version of aerial delivery of water,” Pincha-Tulley said.
Idyllwild Fire Station employees welcomed residents back with flags at both ends of town. Thank you signs began to appear Sunday evening. Patrons of Higher Grounds joined owner Mimi Lamp in creating a large montage of grateful comments.
The fire ultimately burned 27,500 acres, most of those in wilderness areas, and cost more than $20 million. The vast network of hiking and biking trails in Garner Valley and May Valley was closed during the fire. Many of these trails and ones in the wilderness above Humber Park remain closed due to the damage.
On Saturday, July 20, Idyllwild Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz (CA-D) visited the Mountain Fire IC post and also some of the homes that burned early in the fire.
The congressman promised to amplify the voices of the IC team and the local officials who had spent years and endless hours to ensure the Hill’s protection. “Except for your preparation, more homes and people could have been injured and devastated,” he said. “I will inform all levels of government, including the White House, of the extraordinary teamwork and collaboration.”
A Burned Area Emergency Response team arrived in late July and prepared a report in August. Repair of the trails and ecosystems will take a year or longer, according to District Ranger Arturo Delgado.
The fire was finally controlled in December, according to Forest Service officials.
More than the Mountain Fire threatens the Hill
While the Mountain Fire was the largest and most direct danger to the Hill, several other fires threatened the area, too.
The 2013 fire season, which many local fire officials now describe as year-round, began with dangerous potential and never retreated. The lack of significant rainfall for the past several years had substantially reduced fuel moisture levels.
All fire agencies — Idyllwild, Cal Fire and the Forest Service — were busy this year protecting the community and environs.
Fires began in January, when Idyllwild Fire was dispatched to a structure fire on Saunders Meadow Drive. Several more occurred in the town during the winter and early spring.
In late March, the first wildfire occurred in Pinyon. Six acres were burned. Ten engines and more than 75 firefighters were dispatched to prevent its spread.
In early May, larger fires began. Both the Summit and Gorgonio fires burned more than 500 acres. The Summit, which burned nearly 3,200 acres, spread past Banning and into the national forest. Within a day the Gorgonio Fire began on the south side of Interstate 10 and Highway 243 had to be closed.
Immediately following the Mountain Fire, three other fires, the largest of which was the Silver Fire, started on the Hill. The Strong Fire, although the smallest at less than acre, occurred in Idyllwild and could have spread to residences without the immediate response of citizens and Idyllwild Fire Station personnel.
Within a day, the Tram Fire began near the tram parking lot. And then came the Silver Fire, which burned more than 20,000 acres. The Poppet Flat and Twin Pines communities were evacuated and Highway 243 again closed for days. Many more structures burned in this area than the Mountain Fire.
August ended with the threat of another fire — the Little Fire — atop Thomas Mountain. Despite its name, the fire burned nearly 100 acres, just west of the Mountain Fire area in Garner Valley.
Chamber of Commerce closes its doors
David Jerome watched over the demise of the Idyllwild Chamber of Commerce in 2013. The Chamber had been a fixture in Idyllwild for decades, but internal feuds over the past several years ultimately discouraged members from assuming the role of director.
In late April and mid-May, Jerome held general membership meetings to address the Chamber’s future. With a resounding show of indifference, only seven of 57 members of the Idyllwild Chamber of Commerce cared enough about the Chamber’s future to attend the first meeting called to decide its future. In a little over an hour, those seven voted to dissolve the long-standing Idyllwild institution. Jerome, as the last board member, had to assume the role of distributing the organization’s meager, final assets.
The Chamber entered 2013 fending off a lawsuit, which David Roy initiated. He was seeking payment for additional work he did on the Tree Monument during the summer. But the Chamber, as an instituion, had dropped its directors’ insurance. Consequently, the suit, which was filed against the Chamber and individual members, was a personal cost to directors.
Rather than simply advancing the Chamber’s mission, serving as director was becoming personally expensive, discouraging the board from continuing and dissuading other members from accepting the role.
Although Roy requested in January that the suit be dismissed since it had been originally filed six months before, it was too late to spare the directors the costs of defending themselves.
In the complaint, Roy alleged the Chamber hired him to apply a sealing coat to his carving, “Harmony,” prior to its July 2012 dedication. He stated he was owed $1,500 for the work performed.
Prior to the vote to dissolve, long-time Chamber supporter Marge Muir made the case for perpetuating a Chamber as a new one without the baggage that has dogged this board.
Former President Chris Titus, who attended the final meeting, cautioned that as long as the Tree Monument remained a Chamber asset, for this or any future Chamber, the threat of a suit remained. “As long as the Chamber owns the monument, the suit is there,” she said.
In a May letter, Jerome and the committee told the community how the Chamber’s assets were to be disposed and dispersed:
“We propose the following dispersal of the Chamber’s assets to local 501(c)3 nonprofit corporations:
“• The Town Monument and the remaining funds in the monument account to the Art Alliance of Idyllwild, with the Idyllwild Rotary Club agreeing to take care of maintaining it.
“• The shuttle van to the Art Alliance of Idyllwild.
“• Historical documents, memorabilia, folding tables, file cabinets and vacuum cleaner to the Idyllwild Area Historical Society.
“• Computer, printer and office supplies to the Soroptimists International of Idyllwild.
“• Four-panel convention back-drop to the Friends of the Idyllwild Nature Center.
“• EZ-Up tent to the Idyllwild Community Center.
“• One case of emergency kits, Chamber defibrillator and margarita machine to the Mountain Disaster Preparedness.
“• Remaining furniture and assorted items to the Idyllwild HELP Center. Any remaining cash in the general account after the Chamber’s final expenses have been paid would also go to the Idyllwild HELP Center.”
Later, the group voted to give the Idyllwild Chamber of Commerce phone number to the Idyllwild Town Crier and Visitors Center.
Deer herd is new Idyllwild attraction
The Art Alliance of Idyllwild is on a mission to enhance Idyllwild’s reputation for art. The first step was seeding the town with 22 deer. From the monument, “Harmony,” to Pine Cove, a deer herd, which many local artists colorfully painted, has been spread throughout the Hill.
AAI is re-establishing Idyllwild as a new marketing niche in a locale long favored by artists and musicians. The deer herd is an extension of AAI’s effort to create a reputation of the Hill’s support and embracement of public art.
“We want to extend the goal of Chris Trout when she founded the Art Alliance in 1998, to make Idyllwild known as an arts community and a destination for cultural tourists,” said Project Manager Shanna Robb in May during the planning stages.
In August, the herd was introduced to the town at an event outside Forest Lumber. This was the only time the entire 22-member herd collected together. The herd comprises eight bucks and seven does all standing, five fawns grazing and two recumbent fawns. During the next month, the animals were distributed throughout the community.
Each local artist who volunteered to paint a deer was assigned a specific theme to portray. For example, Donna Elliot and Neil Jenkins depicted the numerous opportunities for climbing and hiking adventures on their buck. Rich Stergulz created native wildlife and Kathy Harmon-Luber prominently depicted Lake Fulmor’s magic on her subject. All the artists enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to become part of this larger, community effort.
AAI President Gary Kuscher noted public art confers numerous benefits in towns and cities in which it is displayed. “It promotes tourism, creates joy, increases foot traffic that benefits local stores and restaurants, beautifies the business district and builds a sense of community,” he said.
Burglaries still a Hill nuisance
Unfortunately, 2013 began with concern about burglaries and finished with similar worries, despite an apparent dip during spring and summer, although the focus seems to have subtly shifted from commercial back to residential, the primary target in 2011.
In January, a group of local business people met with Riverside County Sheriff’s Department officials to discuss the spate of commercial break-ins in late 2012. According to Hemet Station Special Investigations Supervisor Sgt. Wallace Clear, deputies patroling Idyllwild in the early morning hours spotted two suspicious vehicles on Jan. 11.
Although deputies pursued the vehicles, no arrest was made.
The arrival of warmer weather coincided with a drop in reported crime. Then the return of late fall and early winter saw another spike in local break-ins — both commercial and residential.
One part-time resident — Maryann Reimers — believes someone broke into her house and spent several nights.Idyllwild Mini Storage also was a recent victim, according to owners Otto and Christina Kyriakivis.
While the Riverside County Board of Supervisors has approved funding for additional deputies, Capt. Scot Collins had explained that it takes a year or more to recruit, hire and train applicants before they can patrol the streets and highways.
Within the next year, the ratio of deputies to 100,000 residents in the county’s unicorporated areas will return to 1.0. As recently as last year, the county’s financial travails had resulted in a drop to 0.75 deputies per 100,000 residents.
Oak borer is expanding its Hill presence
The Goldspotted oak borer has expanded its presence on the Hill since its discovery in November 2012. As of early December, 28 trees were identified with GSOB infestations, according to Gregg Bratcher, Cal Fire unit forester on the HIll.
While the apparent presence of the beetle is still far from the level of devastation its inflicted in San Diego County, where the non-native beetle has killed more than 80,000 oaks, local forest officials are still worried about its spread. Currently, entomologists know of no native California predator or insecticidal defense against the tree killer.
A DNA analysis, conducted by the Invasive Species Lab at University of California, Riverside, confirmed the Idyllwild beetle has the same genetic characteristics as the GSOB invaders in San Diego County. Transportation in firewood from San Diego to Idyllwild is the likely culprit, according to forestry officials.
This year, since the confirmation of the GSOB on the Hill, the Idyllwild Garden Club has produced warning signs, placed along local highways, about bringing oak firewood to the Hill. Several signs also were in Spanish.
Identification of more infested oaks grew slowly, but began to rise in the fall. The Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council is trained and prepared to inspect local trees, said Executive Director Edwina Scott. Most of the infected trees have been identified through these inspections.
Both Bratcher and Kevin Turner, GSOB coordinator for University of California Agricultural and Natural Resources at UC Riverside, have said many oak trees are displaying stress from the drought, which makes infected trees more difficult to identify. But for those not infected, the lack of water may make them more vulnerable to GSOB attacks.
With the confirmation of at least 28 trees infected with GSOB, Turner said it is now just as important to limit the export of oak from Idyllwild as it is to limit its import.
“We need to be extremely cautious and careful about taking wood out of the community now,” he advised. “But we could still bring the beetle here.”
At this point, identifying GSOB’s presence on the Hill has been limited to oak trees on private property. No infested trees have been found in the national forest, according to Kayanna Warren, San Jacinto Ranger District forester.
Cal Fire approached the state Board of Forestry to expand the current Zone of Infestation to include Riverside County and the Hill specifically. In September 2012, the board designated 1.1 million acres in San Diego County as GSOB-infested. This action formally recognized the GSOB as a threat to California’s forest and woodland resources.
Property owners were encouraged to call the GSOB hotline at 1-951-659-8328 to report trees or request an inspection.
J.P. Crumrine can be reached at [email protected]