Marge Muir, vice chair of the County Service Area 38 (Pine Cove) Advisory Committee, attended the April 8 meeting while still recovering from hip surgery last month. Photos by J.P. Crumrine
Marge Muir, vice chair of the County Service Area 38 (Pine Cove) Advisory Committee, attended the April 8 meeting while still recovering from hip surgery last month.
Photos by J.P. Crumrine

Fire season and protection of the Hill also were discussed at last week’s County Service Area 38 Advisory Committee meeting and among fire officials in the state.

At the local meeting, the topic came up when Committee member Marge Muir asked Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins, “We’ve talked about getting the mountain abated. What can we do?”

His reply addressed several points about the arrival of fire season and his concerns over it.

“We’re seeing an increase in the number of grass fires,” said Hawkins. “Two weeks ago, a fire would start but would not spread. This week we had a 15-acre fire.” He stressed that the early winter and early spring precipitation has encouraged the grass to bloom, which didn’t occur last year.

Lack of water concerns local, as well as state, fire officials, who have also issued warnings. “Despite a rainy December and February, this year’s winter overall was one of the driest and hottest on record in many years,” said Daniel Berlant, chief of Cal Fire Public Information. “This winter, we took the unusual step to staff over 70 fire engines to meet the winter fire threat.”

He added, “As California is now clearly in the fourth year of a drought, the dry conditions have already led to an increase in wildfire activity statewide. In just the first three months of 2015, Cal Fire has responded to well over 450 wildfires across California, during a period when activity is normally much lower. This has been a trend over the past couple years due to the drought.”

Idyllwild Fire is also stepping up its oversight, according to Chief Patrick Reitz.

“Although the district is not adding staffing at this time, annual inspections will be performed by shift personnel,” Reitz said.

He advised residents to abate early and remember that abatement is required all year. Barbecue permits are required and free but propane only; charcoal is not permitted. Using outdoor fire pits and chimineas are not allowed. “When in doubt about what is and is not allowed, call the district,” he suggested. “Contact the district if there are abatement questions.”

Reitz also advised that the time to plan for evacuation is now, not at the time the evacuation is ordered.

Hawkins also expressed worries over the expanding number of dead and dying pines on the Hill.

“As I drove up highways 74 and 243, I saw significant bark-beetle attacks. The trees along ridges are the most noticeable because of the drought. Today it doesn’t look good,” Hawkins said during the CSA 38 meeting.

Regarding abatement, while he acknowledged questions that have been raised regarding the county’s Fire Code Committee, Hawkins said he would reinvigorate this group.

“There were two major concerns affecting abatement up here,” he said. “Its cost and getting rid of the material.” No question exists about authority to require abatement on land with structures. Parcels without structures pose some questions, which is what he hoped the Code Committee could help address.

Some of the negative reaction to the committee’s work came from the perception of “government” rules. “It looks like big intrusion of government,” Muir noted.

In order to gain community commitment for abatement by May 31 and everyone in compliance, Muir recommended, “It’s critical for people to feel they’re involved and there’s a solution.

“The Fire Safe Council takes care of the big jobs; the issue is the guy with a lot of abatement and struggling to make a living,” she added.

The Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council’s Woodies are able to help these individuals, according to Executive Director Edwina Scott.

But with many new people on the Hill, “If people don’t get a letter from their fire department, they assume they’re passing,” she added.

Again, Hawkins suggest that the Fire Code Committee should be re-energized. But he stressed that the fire agencies have a commitment to this community for its life, safety and protection. “We’re willing to be part of the discussion and solution,” he stated.