Editor’s note: This week ends the Town Crier’s two-part series examining the top 10 stories affecting Idyllwild in 2014.
Motorcycle fatalities return to Hill roads
By J.P. Crumrine
The past year was very dangerous for motorcyclists traveling the Hill’s roadways. Seven deaths occurred in 2014 compared to none in 2013.
The causes vary. Some officials simply attribute it to the improving economy, which encourages more motorcycle trips than recent previous years. In the whole of 2008, there were five motorcycle fatalities on the Hill’s highways.
Most of our coverage has been photographs of the scene and one editorial. Editor Becky Clark explained the value of photographs in her “Out Loud” column: “Some photos tell more than a story can, such as when the Marine motorcyclist was killed several years ago on Highway 243. Larry Donahoo, Village Hardware, donated an American flag, and the man’s fellow Marines’ ritual covering of his body with the flag on the highway while traffic stopped was a gripping photo. It broke our hearts to lose a man we didn’t know.”
Mile High Radio assume operational control of WNKI
At the end of 2014, two years of negotiations between the Idyllwild Fire Protection District and the Mile High Radio Club successfully ended with a mutually approved agreement for MHRC to operate the local emergency station WNKI — 1610 AM.
From the fall of 2012, when Bob McCullough retired as WNKI’s manager, the position has been vacant, although volunteers have kept it functioning, especially during the 2013 Mountain Fire. In December 2012, MHRC offered to manage the station and bring its expertise to the dials and antenna.
With mountain terrain, coverage of the whole Hill is a challenge, according to MHRC President Bill Tell, but he and fellow MHRC member Tom Pierce have developed a plan, which was presented in the spring of 2014, that should accomplish this task of propagating the station’s signals.
“[The club] has a vision to broadcast WNKI from Poppet Flat to Pinyon,” Tell has said. “We can cover the entire area that’s part of the [Community Wildfire Protection Plan]. People are screaming ‘We can’t hear you.’ The MHRC has the vision, the engineering know-how and the drive to pull together a team from multiple agencies to make this happen.”
The IFPD commission approved the agreement at its November meeting and two weeks later in a special meeting, MHRC also approved the agreement. Its first step will be developing the operation plan for the station and thorough training, according to Tell. Initially, MHRC will set priorities for improvements to the station, while seeking funding sources, including grants.
“We have preliminary estimates for many of the improvements we have proposed to date … most likely move out on some simple less expensive ones first, making sure we maintain an operations budget and validate performance improvements as we go along,” Tell said.
Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz added, “MHRC has been working diligently for about two years to move WNKI into the new generation; the initial steps are actually a continuation of what has already taken place to date with the MHRC, all of which has been very positive.”
Many on the Hill have been urging, supporting and anticipating this step for several years. Nevertheless, as the signatures were being applied to the document, some have raised concerns.
For example, prior to the commission’s unanimous approval, Reitz expressed some reluctance, although he assured the commission he would support its decision.
“I still have concerns over the issue of insurance and how we reach settlement if we reach impasse,” Reitz told the commission. “I’m still concerned the agreement is not there yet.” Later he clarified his comment: “Based on the district’s legal counsel’s review, there are two concerns — mutual indemnification and the process by which impasse is addressed, using the courts instead of arbitration.”
On the other side, MHRC member Jeff Smith has expressed his fear that the agreement’s language will threaten the license because it explicitly violates a Federal Communications Commission regulation regarding these local stations, classified as Travel Information Stations.
In a July 2013 rulemaking, the FCC stated, “We find that allowing routine [TIS] broadcasts during nonemergency periods of terrorist threat levels, public health alerts, emergency preparedness messages, conservation messages, and the like, is not in the public interest, as such routine broadcasts also would dilute situational awareness pertinent to the traveling motorist. The primary purpose of the TIS is to assist motorists in the process of traveling and to provide emergency and imminent threat information in covered areas. Therefore, we will continue to disallow messages that do not have a travel nexus, are not emergency-related, or do not relate directly to an imminent threat because such messages would dilute the convenience and efficacy of TIS.”
However, Tell and Michael Andelson, who assisted the club in reviewing the agreement, stressed that the actual limitation is on a licensee’s conduct, not simply language in the agreement. Both men stated that the club’s broadcasts would have to comply with FCC regulations and guidelines.
WNKI, 1610 AM, was established in 1988. The station founders were George Covington and Carol Lindholm who were involved in managing the station until 2003, when Bob McCullough, Pine Cove resident and former water district director, assumed the daily management, especially during fires and other emergencies.
Covington and Lindholm envisioned a station to keep Hill residents informed of approaching disaster threats, updates during emergencies and information for residents who have complied with evacuation orders.
“It [the station] was George’s idea, WNKI was his baby,” McCullough told the Town Crier in 2012. “IFPD said they’d provide the space, but George had to raise the money.”
While IFPD holds the FCC broadcast license, Covington did raise the $19,000 from various agencies, such as Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service and private donations, to equip the station. WNKI also provides local weather information and public service announcements, but its primary function is to provide emergency broadcasts.
Goldspotted oak borer spreading domain, Idyllwild declared zone of infestation
The invasive Goldspotted oak borer expanded its presence on the Hill during 2014. The number of local trees harboring the GSOB is now at 61, according to Gregg Bratcher, Cal Fire chief forester for Riverside County. The number of infested and dying trees nearly doubled from early June to the end of the year.
That is one reason local officials have taken this problem to the state.
At the state Board of Forestry’s Dec. 9 meeting, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott requested that the zone of infestation for the oak borer be expanded to include the Hill. The board unanimously approved the request.
“By establishing the GSOB zone of infestation in Riverside County, even greater public attention will focus on GSOB and raise the awareness of the surrounding counties and the rest of the state. In addition, the ZOI provides specific authority to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to control and limit the spread of the infestation under certain circumstances,” Pimlott wrote in his request.
He stated that since 2012, when the first positive oak was identified on the Hill, the cost of removal and disposal has exceeded $200,000. The majority of the damage has occurred on highly valued large oaks on private property, he added.
Since the first identification in fall 2012, Dr. Tom Scott and Kevin Turner, both of the University of California, Riverside, Cooperative Extension, believe the GSOB’s infestation has been slower and less pervasive than in San Diego County.
While it is still early to identify differences between the GSOB’s spread here and in San Diego County, Turner acknowledged that no other community has committed the resources — funding and volunteers — to combat the insect’s invasion of forest oaks.
Scott estimated that nearly 40,000 acres in San Diego have been identified as GSOB locations. Between 50,000 and 200,000 oaks have probably died as a result of this infestation, he added. The board also expanded the San Diego County ZOI at its December meeting.
Besides in San Diego and Riverside counties, this autumn a grove of 30 oaks in Orange County were found infested with GSOB, according to Bratcher. This is the first discovery there and “it was not contiguous with Riverside County,” Bratcher emphasized.
The hotline is still available to receive calls of suspected GSOB-infested oaks. The number is 951-659-8328. He advised residents to be on the alert for oak trees that retain their dead leaves during the winter.
Just as alarming as the spread of the pest is the fear present within the community of seeking help identifying the sick and dying trees.
“I’ve heard from several sources that people don’t want to call the hotline because they’re afraid county fire will come and take the tree or trim it,” Bratcher said.
He emphasized that these actions are not permitted without the permission of the property owner. “We have no jurisdiction without permission,” he stressed.
Cal Fire redacts Mountain Fire report
By Jack Clark
In July 2013, only weeks after the Mountain Fire, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) issued a press release stating the fire had been caused by “electrical equipment failure.” But Cal Fire did not indicate whether that “electrical equipment failure” had been due to a manufacturing defect in a component part, faulty installation, negligent maintenance or repairs, a lightning strike or sabotage. The press release faulted no one for causing the fire.
Cal Fire public information officers stated that Cal Fire would release no further information “until the investigation is complete.”
In May 2014, Cal Fire released its heavily redacted report to the Town Crier. Apart from indicating that the Mountain Fire had originated somewhere on spacious property owned by Dr. Tarek M. Al-Shawaf in Mountain Center, Cal Fire extensively blacked out all parts of the report indicating the origin and cause of the $24-million blaze that began on his property.
During the next four weeks, the Town Crier repeatedly inquired as to why Cal Fire was holding back on origin and cause, and during that time Cal Fire did not explain, nor did it claim any exemption.
Finally, in June 2014, a Cal Fire public information officer told the Town Crier that the report was redacted because the final origin and cause determination is not made in investigators’ reports, but in “an additional step” that had not yet been taken. He did not indicate what constituted the “additional step,” nor did he explain why Cal Fire had released the report after having stated that nothing further would be released until the investigation was complete.
Within days, a different public information officer told the Town Crier that the report was redacted under Government Code section 6254, subdivision (b), because of possible future criminal or civil litigation. But California courts have clearly held that withholding information under subdivision (b) requires that litigation already have been filed, which was not the case.
The Town Crier requested unredacted reports under the California Public Records Act.
In July 2014, Cal Fire’s in-house counsel, David Wiseman, told the Town Crier that the report was redacted under section 6254, subdivision (f), because it was an investigatory file compiled “for law enforcement purposes.” But no California appellate court has held Cal Fire’s fire investigation reports to be “compiled for law enforcement purposes.” Wiseman further stated that if no criminal or civil litigation developed within a reasonable time — “two years or so” — he would seek executive authorization for the release of the unredacted reports at that time.
The two-year anniversary of the Mountain Fire is now only six months away. Cal Fire still has not filed litigation or released the origin and cause of the fire. Under California Code of Civil Procedure section 338, subdivisions (b) & (c), the statute of limitations for a person to file a civil suit for damage to their real or personal property is three years, yet after a year and a half Cal Fire still has not released the information the public needs to support such compensatory litigation.
The Town Crier will further pursue the origin and cause of the July 2013 Mountain Fire and report on these efforts in upcoming issues.
By Becky Clark