The community meeting about the Cranston Fire drew dozens of local residents. It became standing-room-only when more than 100 chairs were filled, and more people stood in the back or along the walls to hear from the Incident Management Team officials, as well as county health and local government leaders Monday night in the Idyllwild School gymnasium.
Several times a comment from a fire official was followed by thunderous and grateful applause. IMT Information Officer Paul Gibbs promised to share this gratitude with the field personnel on Tuesday. At the Tuesday-morning briefing, he told the team leaders how much the community appreciated, and was grateful for, the efforts to protect and save our homes and town.
First to address the anxious, but indebted, audience was Operations Section Chief Billy Steers. He quickly described the conditions along the fire’s perimeter. Divisions A and B, which are the western flank of the fire, as well as C and G, along the southern edge of Idyllwild, “look real good and some mop up has begun.”
Division H, which is holding South Ridge, continues to improve and the previously totally red lines now began to include black.
“Every day has been better and better,” Steers concluded.
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department came next. Deputy Frank James complimented the community on its attitude, both during and after the evacuation.
“This community is awesome, and we appreciate it. We appreciate your patience during this stressing and frustrating time,” James said.
Several areas, including Lake Hemet, Apple Canyon, Mountain Center and several streets in Idyllwild remained closed.
During the evacuation, the Sheriff’s Department deployed five different teams with 12-hour shifts. They checked almost every house and every street in Idyllwild during the evacuation to ensure safety.
Bruce Barton, director of the Riverside County Department of Emergency Management Department, discussed the work his staff has done to locate and open shelters off the Hill. More recently, they have had hazardous-materials assessments conducted at the structures that burned.
RC Waste Management Department will be removing any dangerous materials in the next few days.
Barton also announced that the Idyllwild Transfer Station will be open from 7 a.m. to 5
p.m. all week this week and for the next 90 days.
Jerry Hagen, the emergency services coordinator for the Hill, stressed safety after returning to our homes.
“When you left, the power was off and when you got home, the power was on,” Hagen began. “The Transfer Station is open the next 90 days. Please use it. You can’t tell bad food, you can’t see it or smell it, you only know when you get sick!”
Caltrans is working night and day to open the roads, said Information Officer Terri Kasinga, but the disappointing news was Highway 74 to Hemet. Caltrans does not yet have a definite date for opening that section. Much work is continuing, including Southern California Edison replacing damaged electric poles and Caltrans replacing and repairing guard rails and more.
This section will be re-assessed this weekend.
Although the Cranston Fire is nearly contained and will be controlled, the future may not return to normal for many months. Kasinga warned the audience that heavy rain or thunderstorms could wash debris onto the roads causing flooding and more damage.
Caltrans is trying to identify the vulnerable areas, but so much surface near the highway has burned, and water will easily run off rather than percolate for months.
Caltrans has expedited the work and hired a contractor just for this area. It plans to use equipment and supplies from other areas until inventory is replaced.
Kasinga said the initial cost of the road work will be $5 million and will grow. As she ended, Kasinga repeated, “We’re very concerned about rains, storms and monsoons. Dangerous areas will be along local creeks, such as Strawberry and Dry.” Caltrans will rebuild and reinforce culverts and bridges.
Two local fire officials, San Jacinto Ranger District Division Chief Freddie Espinoza and Cal Fire Division Chief Bill Weiser, addressed the success of all of the pre-suppression work, such as fuelbreaks, evacuation plans and drills in the area.
They attributed the IMT’s success to its reliance on the work done here for the past decade and longer. Other fire officials all week praised the contribution of the fuelbreaks in saving the community.
They praised the work that has been done through the local Mountain Area Safety Taskforce and asked Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz and Assistant Chief Mark LaMont to join them before everyone. “We all stand together,” Weiser said.
Then, Jerry McGowan, the IMT commander, spoke. He announced to an amazed and exceedingly grateful audience that containment had reached 82 percent as of Monday evening. More than 1,250 firefighters are finishing the fire containment and beginning the clean-up stages.
“We’re not done, and we’ll make it as safe as possible for you to go back,” he added.
Local and federal government leaders finished the meeting. Rhonda Andrewson, president of the Idyllwild Fire Protection District, expressed her thanks to all in the room, too.
Riverside County 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington asked people to call his office if there were questions or people needed help “from the county to recover.” This could include food or clothing donations, “whatever the community needs, call.”
The final speaker was Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz, who also offered the assistance of his staff from the Palm Desert office. He also commented on how unified the various fire officials — local, county, state and federal — were and how much that contributed to quickness of containing this fire.
“I commit to you resources to answer questions of where to get help.” Ruiz also described the fire-related problems in Anza. While the flames are far from Anza, a main power line from SCE to the Anza Electric Cooperative runs along Highway 74 from Hemet.
This line was severely damaged and Anza has been without power, in this heat wave for nearly a week.
He also will be working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to release funds for post-fire work and future fire-prevention projects.
In finishing, Ruiz said, “I’ll be at the jazz festival and it will be a celebration.”
One final note was a mixed blessing. Idyllwild School Principal Matt Kraemer said buses would be available to take local students to high school in Hemet, once school starts Aug. 13. However, as of now, with Highway 74 closed, the route will be through Banning.