The guardrail and a large culvert on Highway 74 between McGaugh Road and McCall Park Road were severely damaged as the Cranston Fire ripped through the canyon below, eventually destroying a home at the top of the hill. Photo by Halie Wilson

Repairs to highways 74 and 243 a long-term project

It’s hot-pink magenta with a tinge of neon orange. A thick swath of it paints Highway 243 as you drive south from Idyllwild and everything around it, trees, rocks and dirt, climbing the hillside toward AstroCamp and snaking along West Ridge. Several houses on Robin Drive are painted pink, too.

This is the Phos-Chek battle line that mostly held, saving countless homes and businesses in the village of Idyllwild.

Pass through this psychedelic dreamland and what you see is sometimes unrecognizable, like you’ve landed on a charcoal planet.

The Cranston Fire ripped a path of destruction that reached far and wide, much of it along highways 74 and 243.

After closing the roads between Hemet and Mountain Center, and between Idyllwild and Morris Ranch Road, then Lake Hemet for eight days to clear as much of the damage as possible, Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol allowed Mountain Center residents to return home via Highway 74 at Lake Hemet on Thursday, Aug. 2 at 8 a.m.

On Saturday, Aug. 4, at around noon, vehicles were allowed through both highways, a relief for the commuters who live and work between Idyllwild, Mountain Center and beyond, and the Hemet area.

A California Highway Patrol detail kept Highway 243 closed at Keen Camp Station Thursday morning, allowing only work vehicles and emergency personnel to come and go. Photo by Halie Wilson

Now travelers are stopped to wait for a pilot car to escort them through the damaged areas, adding as much as 45 minutes to the drive. Still better than the two-hour commute between Garner Valley and Idyllwild many were forced to drive, taking the desert route to Interstate 10, then up through Banning on 243.

On Monday, postal workers returned to Mountain Center Post Office to resume regular delivery. During the road closure, residents who needed their mail were forced to drive to the San Jacinto Post Office and any mail that had been delivered on Wednesday, when the fire broke out, sat in Mountain Center.

“We had over 50 workers that fell over 300 trees in two days on Saturday [July 28] and Sunday [July 29],” Terri Kasinga, Caltrans District 8 public information officer, said at last Monday’s community meeting.

Caltrans hired Ames Construction and Alcorn, which started the guardrail work last Monday, July 30.

As of Tuesday, Aug. 7, Caltrans had finished the guardrail work on Highway 243 and continues to work on guardrail replacement along 74, Kasinga said. Crews also have dozens of signs to replace and are cleaning out the drainage basins and repairing culverts.

“For all the work that needs to take place, we are looking at two months approximately, unless we encounter storm damage,” Kasinga wrote in an email. “There is also another director’s order that started this week to repair a culvert on SR 74.”

Damage from the fire and heavy equipment can be seen along Highway 243 in Mountain Center, where Caltrans crews were hard at work doing repairs.
Photo by Caltrans Superintendent John Hubbs

In a press release, Caltrans explains that the culvert and an embankment on Highway 74 is at post mile 54.6, near “White Post Turn” close to Mountain Center and the project started on Monday. “The work is to repair previous storm damage. One-way reversible traffic control within the construction zone will be put in place, initially, Monday through Friday, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.”

A director’s order releasing $5 million in state emergency funds to complete the repairs was approved a few days after the fire broke out, once Gov. Jerry Brown declared the area a disaster site. Caltrans is now working with the Federal Highway Administration to finalize the details of funding for phase one, the “purpose is to reopen the road with the immediate repairs.

“There will be a phase two and phase three projects which will protect the road from future storms,” Kasinga explained. “Those will have added costs and the dollar amount is not yet determined.”

Kasinga confirmed that rebuilding Strawberry Creek bridge on Highway 74, where the Cranston Fire was started, “is on the table, but a lot of studies are needed so the project is justified. We are reviewing the entire area, not just one bridge.”

As Kasinga explained to attendees during the July 30 community meeting at Idyllwild School, “We are very concerned about rain. This is going to be a long-term problem. We have big concerns about Strawberry Creek down on 74 and Dry Creek down that way.

“Once it starts to rain, this whole mountain is going to let loose with debris, rocks, logs and anything else it can bring with it. This is going to be a long-term event. … When it does start to rain, we are going to have a problem,” she said.