Editor’s note: July 2018 marks the fifth anniversary of the Mountain Fire that caused Idyllwild and Fern Valley residents to evacuate. This is the personal account of one evacuee, Fern Valley resident and then-Town Crier Staff Reporter Marshall Smith.
One can never feel safe when wildfire threatens. That is one of the lessons I learned when the Mountain Fire broke out around 1:43 p.m. Monday, July 15, 2013. The fire spread rapidly, taking out a number of homes adjoining Apple Canyon Road near Hurkey Creek Park that first day and night.
Needing to go to a business appointment in Los Angeles on Tuesday, I packed important items — family photos, important records and cherished mementos — and put them in the trunk of my car. At that point, the fire was projected to burn toward the desert and not threaten Idyllwild.
Monitoring the fire all the while through TC dispatches and local media, I returned Tuesday evening, feeling somewhat safer because the fire threat appeared to have lessened. That relief was short-lived.
Wednesday morning, July 17, I started hearing chatter over my Mountain Disaster Preparedness radio about possible evacuation of Fern Valley. That puzzled me because in the past, a far as I knew, wildfires had not come in over the ridges from the north or northeast to threaten Fern Valley. I called a buddy who was on Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit to see if he had heard anything. He told me the Sheriff’s Department was mobilizing to notify Fern Valley residents to evacuate immediately.
I then found out that the fire had taken a sharp turn to the left and was moving directly toward Tahquitz Rock and Fern Valley.
I walked out my front door to check for smoke or any evidence of approaching fire. I saw huge clouds of smoke billowing directly behind Tahquitz. My house was on Fern Valley Road almost directly beneath Tahquitz. As I watched, the smoke began rising more rapidly, towering hundreds of feet into the air.
I quickly grabbed clothes and my two rescue dogs, Molly, my blind Boston terrier, and Grace, my easily rattled and somewhat nervous rat terrier-mix. I was one of the first out of town, as I had heard about the evacuation on my MDP radio before receiving the order from the Sheriff’s Department.
As I drove toward Pine Cove on Highway 243, I pulled over and looked back to see Tahquitz disappearing behind a growing wall of smoke. At that moment, having never evacuated before (I came to the Hill after the Bee Canyon Fire evacuation), I realized I might never see my home again.
As I drove, I had no idea where I was going to go. On the way, I called my sister who lived in Calabasas and told her about the evacuation order. Although she had not been keen about allowing me to bring my dogs to visit since her house was not set up for dogs, she encouraged me to come there with my anxious menagerie.
I arrived mid-afternoon on the 17th. She and my brother-in-law were gracious as they always are, and Molly, Grace and I settled into a small room on the first floor with its own entrance to the outside yard. Although Molly was fine, Grace was a nervous wreck, having never stayed anywhere but my Fern Valley home since I rescued her in 2011. Anytime I was out of the room, Grace would howl. It was difficult to reassure her given my own nervousness. My family was more than understanding.
Then began my constant Internet monitoring of the fire’s development and trajectory for the next four days. Each day, the threat to Fern Valley seemed to grow.
On Friday, the U.S. Forest Service Incident Commander noted that the fire, were it to breech and crest the ridge in Fern Valley, would be difficult to stop a march into town. Forest Service spokespersons also worried about approaching thunderstorms that could bring lightning with potential for more spot fires.
That Friday was my worst day. Up to that point, more than 3,500 fire personnel had performed heroically in creating fire breaks to safeguard the town, including staging the Ernie Maxwell Trail as the last area of defense should the fire crest the ridge. The news continued to worsen. As the fire’s thrust spread closer to the ridge bordering Fern Valley, I, as others may have done, said a quiet and loving goodbye to my home.
Then, as many of us subsequently called it, the Idyllwild Miracle occurred. Tropical rains arrived on Saturday morning drenching the area with over 1-and-a-half inches of rain on Saturday and Sunday. The rain, and the dedication of firefighters, stopped the imminent advance of the fire. It did not crest the ridge. Although there was much to be done to tamp down hot spots and make certain new fire ignition did not occur, for the most part, the fire no longer threatened the town.
Residents, with proof of their residency, were permitted to come back on Sunday, July 21. After clearing the Forest Service checkpoint at Cranston Station, I drove up Highway 74. Leaving Mountain Center on Highway 243, I passed the area were the fire started and those to which it had quickly spread. I saw a stark and sobering moonscape of desolation, and a reminder of firefighter bravery and skill in saving homes on 243, among them Dore Capitani’s Art Garden.
I wondered how firefighters could protect structures during such an intense conflagration. I also began to cry. The tears came without warning. I was sad for those who had lost their homes. And I was feeling profoundly grateful at coming back and a little bewildered at what had occurred — how, at the very last minute, the town, my home and the homes of many friends had been spared by the arduous and dangerous work of brave men and women, and the saving grace of a torrential downpour of rain at a critical moment.
The next day, residents in town began greeting each other with “Welcome home.” As I joined in those greetings, I felt, more than I had ever felt anywhere before, that I was welcome and that I was home.