Wildfires are not unexpected events for Hill residents. Major fires, such as the recent Cranston Fire and the 2013 Mountain and Silver fires, are not annual disasters, but frequent enough to keep residents alert and prepared to react.
The Cranston Fire burned more than 13,000 acres and the Mountain Fire burned more than twice that acreage. While huge compared to the many smaller wildfires on the Hill that start and are quickly controlled, these fires are relatively small compared to the huge conflagrations that have burned millions of California acres in the past two years.
Each recent year, California fights to contain the largest fire in its history. In 2018, the Mendocino Complex has consumed nearly 475,000 acres. Less than 12 months ago, the Thomas Fire burned 280,000 acres.
According to Cal Fire, from Jan. 1 to Sept. 9, 616,000 acres of state lands have burned compared to 236,000 during the same period in 2017. What is frightening is that the five-year average for the first nine months of the year is 175,000.
The combined state and U.S. Forest Service total-burned acreage in 2018 is 1.3 million acres.
As the number and size of the fires continue to grow, the cost to combat them and protect lives and properties grows.
Last week, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott wrote the state legislative leaders that the Emergency Fund appropriation of $442.8 million for fiscal year 2018-19, which started July 1, is approaching zero. In two months, Cal Fire has already expended nearly $431.9 million.
“Cal Fire resources have been deployed to a number of new wildfire incidents in recent days, including the Sliger Fire in El Dorado County,” he warned.
Consequently, Pimlott requested an emergency injection of $234 million “to ensure sufficient authority exists to respond to wildfire activity that occurs between September and November.”
Firefighting costs for the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management have not yet been released. But this funding will affect other programs this year. The change in procedure to eliminate using other program funding does not begin until fiscal year 2020. Federal firefighting costs in 2017 were nearly $2.5 billion.
But firefighting agencies are not the only ones to bear costs of fires. Home and business owners suffer losses, too. After the December 2017 wildfires, nearly 16,000 claims were filed for losses amounting to more than $1.4 billion. About 6 percent of the claims were for total loss. In July 2018, the Carr and Mendocino fires have created nearly 9,000 claims, totaling $820 million.
The Cranston Fire burned 11 residences, of which seven were destroyed, and another five minor structures were destroyed, according to the Riverside County Fire Department’s report.
Five of the burned homes were in Idyllwild, on Deerfoot Lane. Many have asked why these burned and the town was spared.
Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz and Cal Fire Division Chief Bill Weiser acknowledged that no special investigation was done immediately after these homes burned. The Cranston Fire was still a major threat, moving around the town through Mountain Center.
But a number of reasons, not one single cause, contributed to this loss. The wind direction and speed might have changed at that moment. These homes were at the top of three steeper slopes, or fire intensity and direction may have changed, construction materials of the buildings and local fuels all might have contributed to a different situation and result.
In addition, a propane tank exploded while firefighters were in the area. The explosion was audible at the Keenwild Fire Station, according to Weiser. Consequently, to ensure the protection of on-ground firefighters, the fire commanders ordered them to step back and be sure no other explosions were imminent. In addition, the air attack teams were warned of the area where the explosion occurred.
During these moments of ensuring firefighter safety, the fire may have spread more quickly, but as Reitz said, “So many variables are involved, it is impossible to say without an investigation.”