Pat Boss (center), former project manager for the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council and former public information officer for the San Jacinto Ranger District, was honored with a plaque at last week’s Mountain Area Safety Taskforce meeting. Riverside County Fire Division Chief Bill Weiser (left) and U.S. Forest Service Battalion Chief Chris Fogle (right) presented the plaque to Boss and expressed much gratitude for his contributions to the Hill’s fire safety.
Photo by JP Crumrine

Mountain Area Safety Taskforce members last week discussed concerns that the county grinding station may be limiting the size of trees accepted at the Highway 243 site. Gregg Bratcher, state forester division chief and MAST chair, was told the grinding station was not accepting wood greater than 10 inches diameter at breast height.

No one from the Riverside County Waste Management Department was present to discuss the possible change in procedures. Fire officials expressed concern about how and where tree contractors would dispose of these larger pieces.

For example, the cost to remove trees may increase significantly if the wood has to be transported off the Hill before it is cut or chipped, according to Bratcher. He intends to follow up with WMD so that a representative will attend the MAST March meeting.

Norm Walker, president of the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council and former fire chief for the San Jacinto Ranger District and Idyllwild Fire Protection District, concurred and expressed worry that too much wood would be left at the Idyllwild Help Center Center and over tax the MCFSC Woodies, tree-cutting volunteers.

“Our capacity is already at its maximum,” he said. “The [tree contractors] may be thinking they’re doing good, but it causes problems.” He also suggested a MAST workshop about the issue to invite local tree contractors to participate.

MAST incident commanders agreed to establish a subcommittee to address communication issues on the Hill during emergencies.

MAST met last week, but the December meeting was postponed one month because of the recent fires in Southern California. At last week’s meeting, all of the local fire agencies were able to send representatives.

Edwina Scott brought copies of the recently completed and approved San Jacinto Mountains Community Wildfire Protection Plan. Scott, executive director of the MCFSC that prepared this and previous plans, proudly offered copies to attendees. The CWPP has been submitted to the state Fire Safe Council to help obtain future grants.

And future grants are on Scott’s agenda. Funds for several of the MCFSC grants are nearly gone, she said. This includes money for removing dead and dying trees, although she was optimistic that one or two more projects might still be funded.

Regarding oak trees infested with the Goldspotted oak borer, Bratcher added that the GSOB was still a presence on the Hill. About 12 to 15 oaks were removed last year and he is already aware of about the same number needing removal this year. He said some funds are still available for this work, but he would like to secure more.

Jerry Hagen, Riverside County Emergency Management Department coordinator for District 3, said a group of county and local officials had met with Bill Tell, president of the Mile High Radio Club last month.

The group was concerned about the effective coverage of the Hill for WNKI broadcasts. While MHRC, as manager of the local emergency radio station, tries to broadcast messages from Poppet Flats to Anza and Pinyon, Hagen said there are gaps.

Also, while local residents are familiar with WNKI and its service, visitors to the Hill are less aware of the AM station’s purpose. Further, some officials expressed the view that the use of a AM radio broadcast is a less efficient mechanism today when so many, especially younger people, rely on social media such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Hagen explained that the group, which included representatives from the county’s executive office, want to support WNKI and would like to see the MAST group formulate a plan to broaden, strengthen and eliminate the gaps in the emergency communication capability on the Hill.

U.S. Forest Service Battalion Chief Chris Fogle, who is leading the revision of the MAST operating plan and objectives, concurred that this issue should be discussed further and in detail. Bill Weiser, Riverside County division chief, and Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz, both agreed that MAST should examine the issue. The subcommittee was established and Hagen was appointed its chairperson.

Both Fogle and Weiser said their agencies’ current staffing is less than during summer and fall fire season, but not at the normally low levels for winter and early spring. These staffing levels will be reviewed later this month, they noted.