During the Cranston Fire, a handful of volunteers stayed behind to cook food donated by local restaurants for the first responders. Pictured in this selfie taken in the kitchen at the Idyllwild Bake Shop & Brew are (front row) Wendy Fender, Paul White, Jennifer Lozano and Michael Kellner, (back row) Haliee Brooks, Ben Lozano and Brian McWillliams. Photo by Wendy Fender

There are many heroes when disaster strikes in a close-knit community like Idyllwild. Most remain unsung for important acts of courage and generosity beyond the call of self-serving duty. But for the few whose efforts were highly visible, we collected some perspectives.

Paul White, owner of the Idyllwild Bake Shop & Brew located in close proximity to the Idyllwild Fire Station, offered an awe-inspiring narrative. “I was at the bakery when I heard there was a fire coming up the mountain and they knew it was arson,” White said. “Soon after the evacuation started, my wife picked up our animals and took our valuables, including our children, to her sister’s off the Hill. I started wondering, ‘What can we do to help?’ and that became feeding people. It was immediately apparent that there were skilled people who stayed behind specifically to lend a hand. People were checking on houses, watering plants, checking on animals, bringing up supplies and Chief [Patrick] Reitz even made the opening for my wife to get back up with necessary cooking supplies,” recalls White.

“Staff and I began by delivering pasta salad Wednesday evening to the fire house, then we waited to see what would happen. Ken Carter, manager of Café Aroma, instructed his manager Wendy Fender to donate all non-perishables to the fire station and cook up everything else; some firefighters were presented plates of broiled Coho salmon for dinner that night.

“Dave Sandlin brought his refrigerated trailer Thursday morning; that helped immensely to keep all the food supplies cool. It was decided by all the restauranteurs that we’d keep all our perishable food in that cooler and non-perishables in the fire house.

“Thursday, Shane and Wendy Fender brought their remaining food from Café Aroma. Idyllwild Pines brought their food Friday. Mile High Café’s owner Nam Kim, Jason Park and Grace Han had a generator and began feeding firefighters almost immediately. That continued for days.”

Luiz Solis, owner of Fratello’s, The Lumber Mill and Gorditos, and his staff ran constant shifts, remaining open feeding firefighters and locals for no charge through Saturday, an astonishing effort. When power first went out, Fratello’s staff positioned flashlights over the grill to see … to cook.

Early Thursday, Fratello’s, The Lumber Mill and Idyllwild Bake Shop & Brew set up outside making sandwiches. The Bake Shop & Brew borrowed a generator from Kenny Gioeli and by early afternoon, began prepping for dinner.

“Thursday evening, strike teams kept coming,” said White. “We reached out to Luis Solis and Manny to help with food, and Manny got up the mountain with four huge trays of pasta just in time to feed the last 60 to 70 members of the strike team. Thursday night was the busiest night at the fire house for my team. Hailee Brooks and Chef Stevie Davis cooked ’til midnight. “The base camp wasn’t yet set up. We easily put in 17 hours,” said White.

La Casita employees making breakfast burritos for fire crews during the Cranston Fire.
Photo by Roberto Garcia

After the initial chaos, La Casita started bringing in 250 burritos and cooking big breakfasts. Then the restaurant owners got organized and The Lumber Mill put up breakfast each day. La Casita made lunch daily for 70 to 80 firefighters, and Bake Shop & Brew delivered it to the fire house. Kelly Johnston-Gibson of Plant Food Supper Club offered up all her food.

“The base camp firefighters and sheriffs came by at shift change hungry, so we kept feeding in town. We continued cooking at the fire house until power was restored, then we all kept cooking at our respective restaurants. Throughout the ordeal, the Lumber Mill staff kept delivering breakfast burritos to the fire station to fuel firefighters. By Sunday evening, staff were dead on their feet and still feeding the town,” said White.

At some point, Bake Shop & Brew put their food needs up on Facebook. Adam Green, Brian McWilliams, Shane and Wendy Fender, Pilot Jim Robertson and Camille Spencer, Jennifer and Ben Lozano, Mim Andrews of Coyote Red’s, and Scott and Jay McCormick at Village Market donated loads of food.

Chevron’s Steve Friemoth and his daughter were so glad to help throughout. They rationed gas in $20 increments for hundreds of vehicles, with a goal to get everyone off the Hill safely.

The base camp wasn’t yet set up to fuel engines arriving from across the region. Chevron staff left the station at 2:30 a.m. Thursday and were back at 5:30 a.m. Friday. Sometimes, engines and trucks were backed up to the nursery. The station took delivery of three tankers of gas during the fire. Engines from Orange County, Anaheim, Long Beach, San Francisco, Arizona and Texas tanked up from the 3,000-gallon under-ground diesel tank. Then the days began to blur.

Morgan Cannon contacted White via Facebook to donate $100 worth of beer for the firefighters. White re-opened the Bake Shop & Brew, notified everyone on his buddy beer board and got it done.

White said, “We met so many guys at the fire house and the whole experience tightened my crew. Everyone in town bonded and unified in untold ways. The unique thing about this town, everyone who volunteered we basically knew.”