Several days after the year anniversary of the Mountain Fire, Hill residents gathered in the late afternoon to listen to their neighbors’ personal recollections of the days and nights of the fire.
At 6 p.m. Thursday, July 17, 2014, on a sunlit early evening unmarred by ominous clouds or smells of smoke, writers and readers recalled where they were and how they coped as the Mountain Fire threatened Idyllwild. From Monday, July 15, to Sunday, July 21, 2013, from the time the fire began in Mountain Center until mandatory evacuation orders were lifted, Hill residents lived in fear of the fire’s destructive progress.
Each resident who worried through those seven days has a story. A project, begun to encourage writers to recall those events, “Creating a Legacy in Writing: Fire Stories of the Mountain and Silver Fires, 2013,” facilitated by Katya Williamson, sought to collect and archive some of those stories as written and oral history.
These were the memories shared by a number of writers who read their accounts on Thursday. Robert Smith, Gina Genis, Barbara Reese, Marilyn O’Connor Beauchesne, Lola Fisher, Jon Engel, Richard Mozeleski, Sister Rose Marie Stevens, Francoise Frigola, Kristy Baker and Melissa Severa remembered where they were, what they did and how they felt as the fire threatened to change their lives.
The event, sponsored by the Idyllwild Area Historical Society, the Riverside County Library System and the Idyllwild Library and the Friends of the Idyllwild Library drew an audience of more than 30 people.
Smith, IAHS archivist and historian, began the evening with his “Snippets from an Unplanned Vacation.” “The Mountain Fire is again encroaching on the places I love,” he read. He recalled, as did others, sorting through precious belongings to begin the evacuation process — what to take and what to leave. He spoke of the cloud of smoke behind Tahquitz Rock growing into a golden cumulous just as he and wife Adele were preparing to evacuate. As the fire grew, it gained the nation’s attention. “The Forest Service incident commander announced the Mountain Fire had become the nation’s number one firefighting priority,” recalled Smith. “I filled a quart bottle with our good mountain water, closed the blinds and interior doors, and placed the hang tag on the door that read ‘This house is evacuated.’” And then they left.
Others recalled waiting off the Hill wondering what, if anything, they would return to.
Readers spoke of their shared loved for the Hill’s particular way of life and their common fears that it could be changed forever.
And, for all, there were memories of the relief, the tears, the hugs and greetings of friends and neighbors when they returned — the town itself spared, but sadness for the wilderness and wildlife destroyed — and, of course, gratitude for the firefighters who made the return possible.