Even though the boulder that closed Highway 243 between Idyllwild and Pine Cove from Jan. 10 to 13 is gone — mashed into pebbles now — the effect of this incident still remains.
And while the county encourages and pursues planning for possible disasters such as fires, earthquakes or El Niño, the boulder was deemed an inconvenience, not an emergency.
“From the county perspective, it was largely a Caltrans situation,” said Riverside County Emergency Management Department’s Director Kim Saruwatari. “They assessed it. If they needed anything we’d support them, but they didn’t need us.
“Certainly, life safety is the first priority,” she added. “If it were more long-term, perhaps there would have been more discussion between Caltrans and the county.”
Despite the organized efforts to achieve communication and cooperation among the various local, state and federal agencies who have responsibilities on the Hill, this incident did not seem to follow the pattern established by the Mountain Area Safety Taskforce or the Mountain Emergency Services Committee.
For example, apparently the boulder fell sometime late Sunday night, Jan. 10. The local first responders were not notified directly until early Monday morning.
American Medical Response, the county’s ambulance service for the Pine Cove area and north, wasn’t called until about 4 a.m., according to Operations Manager Jack Hansen.
The county’s fire chief said he found out about the closure around 5 a.m. from a Twitter feed. He then began calling his staff and other county emergency officials to find out what they knew.
After some conversations with the AMR crew, which is stationed on Franklin Drive on the Idyllwild side of the closure, Hansen knew the ambulance would not be able to adequately respond to an emergency on the Pine Cove side.
He immediately ordered a second ambulance from AMR’s Banning unit. After one or two calls to County Fire Station 23 in Pine Cove, County Fire offered the quarters for its summer unit to AMR for the second crew until the highway was re-opened.
“We called it Pine Cove North and South,” Hansen said and was very grateful for County Fire’s assistance to allow the second crew to use the quarters at Station 23.
“To me it doesn’t matter how we find out. We have to look at the situation and respond appropriately,” he said. Although the county did not authorize AMR to deploy a second ambulance, Hansen said, “We have a moral and ethical obligation to serve the community.”
AMR will not be reimbursed for its additional costs to staff the second ambulance on the Hill during the highway closure. Since the county did not direct it to supplement its resources, Hansen does not expect reimbursement. If the incident had been a fire or one in which an incident command structure was organized, then AMR would have likely earned the compensation.
While the Idyllwild Fire Department was not directly affected by the closure, Fire Chief Patrick Reitz confirmed that Caltrans did notify the department early in the incident. At the chief’s request, Caltrans said it would make the open lane available to fire engines in case of an emergency during the closure.
“I had conversations with County Fire Division Chief Bill Weiser and called AMR to offer help, too,” Reitz said. “For us it was a normal ordinary day. Fortunately, we didn’t have any transports that need to go to the desert or Loma Linda.”
Once the County Office of Emergency Services became aware of the situation and AMR’s response, they felt the incident had fallen below an emergency level. People would still have capability of getting first responders — emergency medical and fire.
Bill Tell, head of the local Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service known as Mile High Radio Club, said, “RACES supports and augments communications during situations where normal communications are impacted. The support from Mountain District RACES was not activated by the county (as normal channels were fully operational) for the closure of Highway 243.”
Consequently, MHRC, which operates the local emergency radio station WNKI, did not modify the message to alert travelers of the road closure. Tell said the direct contact with agencies overseeing the incident needs to improve in the future.