Gregg Bratcher, Cal Fire forester/division chief and chair of the Mountain Area Safety Task Force.
Photo courtesy Riverside County Fire

Any illusion that fire season in the San Jacintos was beginning to wind down was quickly dashed by the last week of July. The unknowable explosion of flames threatening the populated perimeters of our sky island created a slow-motion panic for most residents as we watched the fire grow from afar. Patience and trust would become sustaining virtues, and both were gratefully rewarded by extraordinary fire-management leadership.

Cal Fire Commander and Mountain Area Safety Task Force Chair Gregg Bratcher sums it up: “The Cranston was a U.S. Forest Service fire because it was primarily situated on their land. What prevailed was a vast coordination effort by multiple fire-prevention agencies from across the southwest that ultimately extinguished this fire.”

When asked about the availability of water resources to fight a fire of this magnitude, Bratcher responded, “We have good water pressure up on that mountain to fight fire around homes. Understand,” he continued, “retardant is not used to extinguish fire. It’s used to identify where firefighters will use irons to cut fire lines, or to identify where dozers will focus in creation of fire breaks or to break the fire’s path or aim fires in different directions. We also use water to extinguish and mop up hot spots found 100 to 200 feet within the containment line.”

Bratcher went on to explain, “Fires sustain on three components: combustible fuel, oxygen and heat. Remove one element and you slow the burn. We get after it on the edges, which acts to dampen and ultimately put out fires.”

When asked about evacuation, Bratcher responded, “We felt the resident evacuation went smooth. Additionally, the fuel-modification work done in recent years on Marion Ridge and upper Dry Creek fuel really paid off,” said Bratcher. “The U.S. Forest Service’s South Ridge fuel modification was critical to the effective protection of Idyllwild town.”

With regard to a community alarm system, Bratcher responded, “MAST, WNKI and Idyllwild Fire Department have discussed the option, but there are several concerns, including management and coordination. As observed, systematic, safe and orderly evacuations are essential and well managed by our current systems.”

When asked about how decisions are made, Bratcher said, “Unified command with Forest Service teams together coordinate firefighters and strategically locate assets to manage the incident. To pull fire trucks off protecting a home would only happen if fire management was faced with extreme safety issues because we’re here to protect life, then property. The big-picture view and team cooperation are essential to overall success in a fire emergency,” said Bratcher.

“Chief [Chris] Fogle, U.S. Forest Service, is acting as IC manager for fire suppression,” Bratcher continued. “Chief Fogle’s teams will be patrolling and watching for any areas in the fire-line suppression area in need of repair. This includes dozer lines, repair of cut fences. They will also mitigate fire suppression on the containment line.

“Ground crews bring the berms over the cut and that helps with erosion control and seeding to encouraging regrowth. Water bars are small ditches designed to move water into green areas, this ground work is also essential. When Cal Fire/Forest Service teams complete this rehab work, the roads between Anza and Idyllwild will open.”

(Following this interview, the highways between Anza and Idyllwild were opened.)