Fire protection projects to continue

The Cranston, the Mendocino-complex, and the many other small and large fires throughout the state did not stop the Mountain Area Safety Taskforce from meeting last week.

Most of the local fire managers were able to attend the Sept. 12 session, at which much of the discussion was about future activities and not the past.

There was one big exception to this observation. In his first comment, Cal Fire Division Chief Bill Weiser praised all the agencies that participate and work within the MAST framework.

“During the Cranston Fire, all the MAST pre-plans actually worked. The folks in this room made it work,” he began. “We’ve worried about that fire [starting at Strawberry Creek and burning up the Hill], and we had it.

“This fire proved the work we’ve been doing and where it was done was really worth it. The West Ridge, South Ridge, and all the fuel reductions around the town proved this group did help the community,” he said with pride and sincerity.

U.S. Forest Service Division Chief Freddie Espinoza agreed with Weiser: “It was very successful; everybody worked together very well.”

“It touched 14 of 25 projects, fuelbreaks or fuel reduction, that I have worked on in the past 25 years,” noted Forest Service Battalion Chief Chris Fogle. “What a difference these fuel reductions have done, limiting the potential fire spread and threat to town.”

And Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz added, “Thanks to everybody in this room. Most of the work started before I came was critical … Everybody in this room played an important part in the Cranston Fire and allowed us to have a home to come back to.”

Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council President Norm Walker, and former San Jacinto District fire chief, briefly discussed his experience last month at the Holy Fire in western Riverside and Orange counties.

“Several, not major, issues we take for granted here because of MAST, consumed time during that fire,” he said. “The coordination between law enforcement and fire is not as good as it is here because MAST meets here [on the Hill].”

Much of the rest of the meeting involved announcements about future projects or plans that would likely start this fall or winter.

MCFSC and Riverside County have been awarded grants to remove dead and dying trees from private property on the Hill, MCFSC Executive Director Edwina Scott shared.

Riverside County Fire Forester Division Chief Gregg Bratcher expects the efforts to deal with the goldspotted oak borer will regain momentum this fall. He encourages residents to call the GSOB hotline at 951-659-8328 to report any questionable oaks on the Hill. This would include oaks holding onto dead leaves rather than seeing the leaves fall to the ground.

When questioned as to whether Southern California Edison would fell the dead oaks threatening its power lines, the fire managers agreed SCE would. However, they encouraged residents to still contact the hotline for several reasons.

SCE might not handle the wood infested with GSOBs appropriately after the tree is down, and Cal Fire needs to continue to collect data on where the dead or dying trees are located in order to determine the path of the infestation.

Bratcher is developing a handout with the best management practices for handling the oak wood after a tree is felled.

Weiser stressed the need for residents and visitors to heed any warning of potential heavy rains and the possibility of flooding and fire debris blocking Highway 74, especially west to Hemet.

The Red Hill Vegetation Management Plan has been delayed, he stated. But Riverside County Fire Department will start developing plans for a fuelbreak in the Point of Rocks area and tie it into other fuelbreaks to the south of Pine Cove.

The Forest Service will spend time this fall re-evaluating its fire plan as a consequence of the Cranston Fire, Espinoza said. “Parts of the West Ridge Fuelbreak may no longer be need.” He expects other projects can resume in the winter after the staff re-assesses them.

However, he does plan to do more prescribed burning in the Thomas Mountain area. “Last year what we accomplished looks really good,” he added.

Planning for a new project, Administrative Defense Zones, has started. This will encompass areas around the stations, roads, recreation facilities and campgrounds.

Reitz did mention the IFPD Community Celebration to be Saturday, Sept. 29, and two weeks later, Oct. 13 will be the Fire Prevention Week Open House. Both events will be at the Idyllwild Fire Station.