Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz (Cal-36) was on the Hill Friday to discuss and advance his concerns about wildfires and his legislation (H.R. 1009) submitted last month.
Ruiz met with officials from the three local fire departments — Idyllwild Fire, Riverside County and the U.S Forest Service staff from the San Jacinto Ranger District — as well as the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council.
Following that session, Dan Felix, San Jacinto District fire officer, led the whole group on a tour of the area in Apple Canyon and the Bonita Vista community burned during the 2013 Mountain Fire.
Before returning to Idyllwild, Ruiz told the group, “Your spirit is very unique. I don’t really see it at other places. I think this is an indication of doing your best. You don’t have to wait for action from Congress.
“You’re an emblem of public service. You put yourself in harm’s way so the public doesn’t go through that,” Ruiz said. “I want to be a full partner as part of your community.”
Ruiz finished his afternoon with a long discussion of abatement, incentives for abatement and fire insurance with the MCFSC board and officers at the Mountain Resource Center.
At one of the stops, San Jacinto District Ranger Arturo Delgado discussed his plans for restoring the burned area. Already members of the Public Lands Education Project are replanting trees in various locations of the burned area. They will continue this work through the end of March, he told Ruiz.
“The mountain has an incredible capacity to recover — over time it will come back,” he stated. “The recovery is slow because there has not been much precipitation.”
Ruiz was curious about how much recovery has occurred in the nearly 20 months since the fire and Delgado estimated “… maybe 50 percent, but it depends upon the conditions.”
In addition, PLEP participants help mitigate hazards, such as dead trees, left from the fire. When Ruiz asked how the Forest Service disposes of the cut wood, Delgado replied, “It’s collected in a special place made available with permits to the public for firewood.”
“Also, a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail is out of commission,” Delgado told Ruiz. “The hikers have to use some of these roads.”
After a final stop near Bonita Vista, Ruiz continued to the MCFSC offices where he discussed H.R. 1009 and other issues affecting prevention of wildland fires on the Hill. His bill has been assigned to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which referred it to its subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management.
“I don’t need to be convinced now of your value. I’m at the point of rolling up sleeves and doing our best to advocate for you,” he told the MCFSC board.
As the group discussed abatement and efforts to encourage it, Ruiz quickly compared the social and private responsibilities of conducting abatement to similar social and private responsibilities in the health-care field, which is his background.
“The work you do in education helps the community come together for abatement. The personal responsibility is the onus of homeowners and residents. How can we change the behavior in the community?” Ruiz asked. Then he compared the abatement issue to health-care issues such as stopping smoking and discouraging drinking while driving. “All are concerns of public health, matters of life and death,” he summarized.
He agreed with MCFSC Director Larry Kueneman that property owners, who do not live on the Hill, still have a responsibility to ensure their land is fire safe and a threat to the residential portion of the community. Ruiz asked what kind of incentives might encourage greater compliance with abatement ordinances.
MCFSC Vice President Norm Walker explained how the group uses grant money. All of the grant money goes toward projects on the ground or education efforts. Landowners are asked to pay about two-thirds the cost of abatement projects. “A lot of people can’t afford the initial abatement cost, but this is only 35 percent of it. Maintenance of the property is much cheaper,” Walker said.
Fire insurance on the Hill was another issue Director Ron Perry raised with Ruiz and his staff. “It’s next to impossible to buy new fire insurance,” he stated.
After some discussion of the situation and examples of people having fire policies canceled, Ruiz said he would approach the state Insurance Commissioner David Jones and request that he and his staff hold a meeting in the area to hear more about the problem and discuss the issue.
Again, Ruiz compared health care and fire problems. Before the Affordable Care Act, health insurers could deny insurance to individuals with pre-existing diseases. The ACA has changed that limitation and Ruiz will ask Jones to look at the fire insurance issue with a similar lens.