The Idyllwild Forest Health Project team organized an evening of speakers Wednesday night at Idyllwild Arts to discuss the recent Cranston Fire and wildfires on the Hill in general. Joining the featured speaker, noted fire ecologist Dr. Richard Minnich of the University of California, Riverside, were Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz, U.S. Forest Service Forester Charles Wentz, Cal Fire Capt. Michael Sebastian, Gerald Clarke from the Cahuilla Band of Mission Indians and William Pink from the Agua Caliente Tribe of Cupeño Indians of the Pala Reservation.
Minnich has shared his views about wildfires several times to groups in Idyllwild. In principal, he believes the efforts to suppress every fire have warped nature’s natural fire processes.
The results have created “the year-round fire season” and bigger, hotter and more fires than historically burned in these mountains. He developed his views from his research comparing wildfires in the Baja, northern Mexico region, with fires in Southern California, as well as extensive research of local newspapers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
He found fewer fires burning less acreage in Mexico and this seems more consistent with the historical data of Southern California. Forests were naturally thinner, and provided much less opportunity for ground fires to climb the vegetation ladder and burn the crowns of native pines.
Mexican officials do not reflexively try to suppress wildfires immediately. These “natural” wildfires essentially create boundaries and limitations, which reduce the incidence of massive and dangerous wildfires.
The forest floor is much clearer in the Baja forest area than one finds in the Southern California mountains. Photographs from the late 1800s and early 1900s of Idyllwild and the San Bernardino mountain communities confirm this. There were fewer trees, they were typically larger and taller, and barely any undergrowth.
By eliminating this natural fire inhibitor, a “Darwinian process” developed. More fuel was available to burn and provided easier access to the crowns, thus allowing fire to burn larger areas, Minnich suggests.
Constant fire suppression in forested areas leads to the “mega-fires” occurring throughout the state, according to Minnich.
He urged greater attention to reducing fuel sources within Idyllwild. This will require manual efforts rather than burns, he noted, and all residents and property owners will need to participate. The Mountain and Cranston fires have effectively reduced major fire threats from the south and east, he believes.
Dark and Fuller canyons should receive the most attention in the future, according to Minnich. There have been fewer fires in those areas and the ladder fuels are now substantial.
The goal should be about 40 trees per acre, he advocated.
Before Minnich, Reitz discussed the Cranston Fire. He stressed how the existing fuelbreaks were critical in keeping the blaze out of town. The wind direction, air attack and, especially, firefighters on the ground were all vital contributors to the ultimate success.
“Abatement gives us defensible space,” Reitz emphasized. “Firefighters can assess your property whether they can defend it and defend it safely.” He added, “That does not mean denuding your property.”
Sebastian also described that the work done to create the Upper Dry Creek, AstroCamp, West Ridge and South Ridge fuelbreaks were instrumental in helping fight the Cranston Fire.
Clarke and Pink described how the early native culture accepted fire. In fact, Clarke discussed the lack of a word for “nature.” The Cahuilla did not separate themselves, humans, from nature so the distinction was not meaningful, he explained.
He also used historic resources, notes and journals from early European explorers, which described a landscape much more open, much more akin to fields and parks than a dense forest.
Pink spent more time describing the local forests as he grew up in the San Jacintos. “Things change, and fire and the environment have changed. There were many more deer. In 1980, the Bighorn Sheep were seen in Lamb Canyon,” he said.
Before the actual presentation began, organizers Mark Yardas and Mara Schoner presented several golden pine cones to local people who helped the community deal and respond to wildfires both before and during the Cranston conflagration. Among the recipients were Tim Morin, John Newman and Doug McKellar of McKellar Tree Service and Landscaping, as well as Reitz and Wentz.