On behalf of Idyllwild Storyteller attendees who donated at the event Saturday night at Middle Ridge Winery Tasting Gallery, Brian Tracy (left) presents a check for $700 to Chief Patrick Reitz for Idyllwild Fire on Monday.
Photo by Holly Parsons

The Cranston Fire appeared on the horizon over Inspiration Point at about noon Wednesday, July 25. The community soon learned multiple fires were allegedly started by a single arsonist.

Brandon McGlover, 32 of Temecula, was swiftly apprehended and subsequently charged with 15 counts of arson by the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office. At his arraignment on July 27, McGlover’s bail was increased to $3.5 million.

What followed was the mandatory evacuation of greater Idyllwild communities and five days of intense firefighting activity along one half of Idyllwild and Mountain Center’s southern perimeters.

Three thousand firefighters converged at the Lake Hemet command center from across California and the U.S. to save this pristine landscape, life and property from total destruction. The areas burned mirror a moonscape. The fire’s heat produced total incineration across the hills behind Mountain Center, remanding tons of ash to the sky above and obstructing visibility well beyond Idyllwild.

In a reflective conversation, Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz said, “It was a team effort and the effort actually started years ago with MAST, Mountain Area Safety Task Force, and a conglomeration of agencies working together. That effort includes not only CWPP, Community Wildfire Protection Plan, but also includes table-top exercises and field exercises with all the agencies,” said Reitz.

“The CWPP includes planning for fuel breaks, which in this case proved very beneficial. The air attack dumping retardant on the fuel breaks slowed the fire to let ground crews on the ground protect structures. U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire, Riverside, Idyllwild Fire, our law enforcement partners RSO and CHP, Cal Trans, county roads, Cal Edison, the water districts, county EMD, all played a part. An off shoot of Idyllwild fire is WNKI, AM radio1610, which was operational for the entire duration of the fire and contributed by broadcasting updates throughout the incident,” said Reitz.

Initially, at about 3 p.m. on July 25, Southern California Edison cut power to Idyllwild for firefighters’ safety. This instantly impacted Spectrum customers due to the absence of a back-up generator. The outage included Idyllwild Fire operations staff who lost phone and internet communication. But the town ultimately lost power for three more days because lines and poles were burning.

“Remarkably, the three CCCs worked: cooperation, communication and coordination. On the Cranston Fire, we got to put into practice what we actually practice, and we used lessons learned from the Mountain Fire. The first 36 hours before the federal management team arrived on site set the stage for the ongoing success of this incident,” said Reitz.

In a few instances, we’ve heard from property owners who saw trucks onsite, then for reasons unknown, they pulled away. Reitz responded, “There are several reasons this could happen; they may have been triaging the neighborhood, identifying properties that were readily defensible, identifying escape routes or water sources, or perhaps they were called to a location that was being critically impacted, or a potential threat to life was in play. We want to hear from concerned citizens who feel there was a possibility their life or property was potentially in peril.”

Some folk are upset because they evacuated and there were folk who didn’t evacuate. “Understand, we issued a mandatory evacuation — we don’t take that position lightly. It was made for your safety and due to the potential destruction of this fire.

“A garden hose is not a fire hose. Fires advance quickly, and the rescuing of a single individual takes precious time and resources, and we can’t guarantee outcomes when folks don’t evacuate because it’s dangerous,” said Reitz.

There were some service workers who stayed behind and were able to provide services during the initial 36 hours before fire camp was established. How is that viewed? “Our incidents are designed to take care of itself; we have food and shelter resources in place. Restaurant owners and service workers who stayed behind to help feed firefighters were instructed that at any time they could be notified to comply with the mandatory evacuation, yet their help was deeply appreciated,” said Reitz.

“Community donations have been remarkable, and we are earmarking the funds collected for wild land PPE or personal protective equipment. Last week’s summer concert honored representatives from all the agencies who cooperated fighting the Cranston Fire and we received $1,618 in donations,” said Reitz.

Storytelling at Middle Ridge this month produced $700 in donations from about 55 attendees. “It actually costs about $2,500 to outfit one firefighter head to toe, and their gear can be entirely destroyed in a single fire season, as is the case this year,” Reitz explained.

To my question regarding economic recovery, Reitz said, “We work very hard when meeting with media to let the Inland Empire, desert and beach communities know Idyllwild is up and running. Our shops and restaurants lost not only all their inventory but significant business. Come back and visit Idyllwild, has been our consistent message.”