Bright green new foliage has begun to carpet land ravaged one year ago by the Mountain Fire, which began at privately owned Gibraltar Ranch in Mountain Center on July 15, 2013.
Among the victims were Marty Prevosto and Sasha Fisher, who lost their home in the first hours of the Mountain Fire.
Just short of one year later, on Tuesday, July 8, they moved into their new home in the tiny Bonita Vista community at the end of Apple Canyon Road on land cleared of the charred ruins of their old home — the ground resurgent and resilient, with new green growth everywhere.
Of seven Bonita Vista homeowners who lost their homes, Fisher and Prevosto were the only ones with insurance and the only ones who have returned to a permanent structure.
“One of our neighbors is staying on their land in their fifth wheel [RV] and plan to rebuild,” said Fisher. But for the others, the loss, without insurance, makes rebuilding difficult if not impossible.
“It was an emotional moment,” said Fisher, “being in our new home on that first night.”
Shortly after the Mountain Fire began, Prevosto and Fisher were alerted to the possible danger it posed to their community. At 2 p.m. a friend who was at the Idyllwild transfer station, immediately above the fire’s ignition point and could see the direction the fire was taking, warned Prevosto that it had already jumped Highway 243 and was moving east toward Bonita Vista.
Prevosto quickly left a contracting job, which he had been on in Pine Cove, and picked Fisher up from her job in Idyllwild. They were unable to get through to their home, horses and cats due to emergency road closures.
First they tried through Mountain Center but fire officials had already shut the highway. They then drove through Banning and up Highway 74 from Palm Desert. This time they made it all the way to Apple Canyon Road; but they could get no farther than the dirt road that winds another mile into their community before being met stopped.
They stayed Monday night in Prevosto’s truck, at the Lake Hemet Market parking lot, watching flames that leapt hundreds of feet into the air in the direction of their secluded property. On Tuesday, fire officials permitted a delegation of Bonita Vista residents to gather at the head of the road leading into Bonita Vista. One resident was conducted back to the community. He returned to the assembled group of residents with tears in his eyes. “Everything’s gone,” he announced.
So began for Fisher and Prevosto the yearlong process of rebuilding and rebirth that only one of seven homeowners in the once tightknit community has yet been able to accomplish.
“It’s been brutal year,” said Prevosto of the process of dealing with Riverside County’s Building and Transportation Departments [Transportation, because of the need to truck in their manufactured home]. “And I’m a contractor. For anyone else it would have been impossible.”
Said Fisher of the many trips to Riverside to secure the necessary permitting, “It was a nightmare. We came in there not understanding the process, and we were treated like cattle. They could have had a better attitude. They could have been kinder.”
But on Monday evening, July 14, a day before the one-year anniversary of the start of the Mountain Fire, Fisher and Prevosto were all smiles as they stood before their new home. Their land is cleared, their home, as dictated by new construction building codes, is equipped with an interior sprinkler system, and they are finally back. “That first night, we slept like babies,” said Fisher.
San Jacinto Ranger District Fire Chief Dan Felix works and lives in Idyllwild. The fire was in his backyard, yet he had to put that aside and treat it as if it were any other fire he has combated.
“Somebody asked me that during the fire, but I said ‘No.’ It’s just another fire,” he said last week. “I had to compartmentalize and revert to our professional training.”
But he did note some differences, such as the fire’s rate of spread in the beginning surprised fire officials. “It moved faster than everybody thought,” he said.
For Idyllwild business owners and innkeepers, the Mountain Fire, which forced a mandatory five day evacuation of Idyllwild and Fern Valley on Wednesday, July 17, the return to normal has taken the better part of a year. Spruce Moose and Coyote Red owners John Stonitsch and Bryan Tallent said that after returning from evacuation they got many calls from potential visitors thinking that the town had burned.
“Then the Silver Fire closed the road up from Banning,” said Stonitsch, noting many off-Hill patrons use that route. Its closure was another negative for business. “We’re just barely back to where we were a year ago,” said Stonitsch.
“The two fires put an end to our summer business,” said Tallent, “It took until the holidays [Thanksgiving and Christmas] for people to realize we were still here and that the town was not charred.”
Merkaba owners Ron and Kathy Campbell noted the same experience. “It took almost a year for us to see recovery,” said Ron. “So many people thought the town was gone. Even after [Mountain Fire] evacuation was lifted, the smoke from the Silver Fire kept people away. All people from the desert could see was the smoke.”
Innkeeper Chris Singer with two properties, Silver Pines Lodge and Creekstone Inn, saw a faster recovery. “By Christmas and New Year’s things were returning to normal,” she said. She noted a New York Times bestseller book by Cheryl Strayed, “Wild,” an account of the author’s Pacific Crest Trail hike, increased the number of PCT hikers that came through Idyllwild in 2014.
“Even with trail closures because of the fire, there were still more PCT hikers than any year in the past,” said Singer. “I had my best spring ever.”
For many who returned from the five-day evacuation, there was one word, sometimes uttered cautiously, but still heard frequently, that characterized the serendipity of tropical rain that drenched the Hill on the weekend after the fire began. Of that providential moisture that helped douse the fire then poised to mount the ridge above Fern Valley and make a run into town, many said, “It was a miracle.”
“There were so many prayers,” said Ron Campbell. “There is so much to be grateful for.”
Mountain Fire anniversary celebration
Idyllwild Fire is hosting a celebration of the community’s return from the Mountain Fire evacuation a year ago. The purpose also is to show completion of Phase 1 of the Idyllwild Fire Station remodel that was possible through donations.
The event is from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, July 20, at the station. Free food and activities such as operating a fire hose, running an obstacle course and sitting in a fire truck are part of the event, as well as music by local folk band That’s All Folk.