Team Rubicon USA
cleaning up debris from the Cranston Fire at Fleming Ranch last weekend.
Photo by Debra Varnado

Last Saturday, Allan Tiso stood on his ranch talking to Team Rubicon USA volunteers who had arrived bright and early to help clear his property of the wreckage left behind by the Cranston Wildfire.

First, they cleaned around the burned tractor and put piles of metal in the dumpster. Then they took down the charred posts, and raked out the ash and debris from several barns, including a carriage barn at the main house.

Later that afternoon, they tackled the gatehouse, what had been ranch-hand Michael Kumpe’s living quarters. Concrete piers, a blackened water heater and a bathtub were all that was left. The “Asbestos-Danger-Warning” signs that the county had posted were gone, so it was safe for the volunteers to enter. The kitchen stove and a microwave lay in a jumble nearby. The volunteers cleaned around those large bulky items as they couldn’t move them without heavy equipment.

“We were in the middle of rehabbing the gatehouse — now all is lost,” Kumpe said, “but the county did help us with the asbestos problem.” Of the work performed, Tiso said Riverside County and Team Rubicon were very helpful.

In late-July to early-August, before its containment, the Cranston Fire burned along Idyllwild’s West Ridge, and Saunders Meadow and McCall Park roads, destroying forest land and property, and eventually spreading to Idyllwild’s South Ridge, overlooking Apple Canyon, Hurkey Creek and Tiso’s 160-acre spread in Mountain Center.

Cranston Fire clean-up crew Team Rubicon last weekend. Kneeling, from left, are Kip Edwards, Jonathan Ward and Ryan McCullough. Top row, from left, are Joshua Lietz, Taj George, Denis Brown, Cody Frazier and Fleming Ranch owner Allan Tiso.
Photo by Debra Varnado

Tiso, his wife Heidi and their five sons — all avid nature- and outdoor-lovers — fled the ranch with their prized animals in tow: Kunekune pigs, horses, goats and chickens. They now live in temporary quarters “next door where we can keep an eye on things and maintain a presence on the ranch.” The Tisos lost seven buildings and a couple of other structures. All of their fencing burned and they have no electricity on the property — months after the blaze.

  “We lost more than $100,000 in private power poles, a dozen that run from the Edison poles to our house, but we can’t get any power … Those poles need to be replaced since they were burned,” Tiso said. “The work will be expensive and needs to wait until the risk of debris flow has passed. Fleming Ranch is a very dangerous place when it rains right now.

“But, there is an inexplicable bureaucratic glitch at Edison. They have sent out two inspectors that have said that we are fine for immediate re-energizing our shop. Then, after they got back to Edison, a supervisor has said that we need to do ‘X, Y or Z,’ and that they will not re-energize. We have two meters on the property, one for the house and one for the shop. We only want the shop energized. There was no damage to the shop or its power panel so we are frustrated by Edison’s behavior.

“We haven’t had any problems with the county debris clearance program, rebuilding, or insurance payments, except the process is slow, but that is the way it goes. As far as I understand, they did not take insurance funds earmarked for re-building; they only took funds that were available for cleanup. If the insurance did not have cleanup funds, they did the work anyway. It was a way to save a little taxpayer money — seemed like a fair approach to me.”

Under the county’s voluntary fire debris cleanup program, the county has budgeted $237,000 to cover the cost of inspections, testing and removal of asbestos on Cranston Fire-burned properties. The program provides for reduced cost dumpsters for use on the affected properties. The county also will inspect and remove household hazardous debris from burned properties, including such items as batteries (solar lights), paints, wood stain and automotive batteries. Homeowners also can opt out of the county’s debris program, but must adhere to requirements set by the county.

Tiso, a former Idyllwild resident and past director of AstroCamp, said his family has lived on the ranch a little over three years. “We love it out here. Folks in Idyllwild are rightfully excited and happy their community got saved by the firefighters. I think that’s awesome, but on this side of the ridge … the [Hurkey Creek] watershed was completely burned. There’s not a tree left in it.

“Ancient oaks — hundreds, maybe a thousand years old — and Native American petroglyphs were lost. They’re all gone now. There was a good amount of Cahuilla Indian activity on this property and you could still see signs of that. So, maybe there’s some archeological losses.

“Although it is wonderful that Idyllwild was saved, I am deeply saddened by the loss of our local beautiful forest and some parts of our ranch, and I think I understand why it happened. Our main house is fine. The fire came through all 160 acres, but it did not decimate us. You see some green trees there because we did a lot of fire prevention … a lot of clearing in our area, enough so the damage was minimized, whereas on the South Ridge itself, there was none. It is public land.

“Right there on the other side of the ridge, that’s Tahquitz Peak. We can see the fire lookout tower up at the high point and South Ridge Trail comes right up through there. They’ve got some pretty major damage.”

Kumpe said he has “lived up here off-and-on most of my life. I have seen fires before, but not this badly neglected … it was like we were nobody; they were all waiting on Apple Canyon. This area did not receive firefighters’ attention in the beginning. I guess they weren’t aware that there were residents back here. There is the Tiso family and 15 more houses toward Apple Canyon.”

“This is true,” Tiso said, “and we are disappointed, but I understand that it was a matter of priorities and very limited resources. Idyllwild was in very grave danger and the limited firefighting resources had to be diverted … especially the air tankers. And there is the issue with dropping ‘Phos-Chek’ in watersheds … there are a lot of creeks in this area. I think that ground crews are a less likely to be deployed in areas that don’t have air tanker support.”

Team Rubicon USA, an all-volunteer force of military veterans, is helping Tiso clean up his property. Cody Frazier coordinates the Temecula Valley District for the 501(c)(3) nonprofit, non-government organization. “The volunteers are not affiliated with the County of Riverside and everything we are doing is with homeowners’ consent. No one is getting paid for this. It’s all community service work. Our funding comes from individual donors, corporations, foundations, trusts and businesses. We don’t accept any public grants or government funding.”

Last Saturday, seven of his “gray-shirts” got busy filling a dumpster. “We don’t haul the debris off. We have them bring a roll-off and we do the heavy lifting. We load it all up for them and the county comes and picks it up. We do a little bit of tree work, too, but can only go so big. We partner with the Forest Service to get certified and can only go a certain thickness — only up to 24 inches. We can fell, and ‘buck and limb’ them into manageable pieces for the homeowner if they want to use it for firework. We can put it in a nice pile or throw it in a dumpster.”

Team Rubicon also will sift through debris, looking for pictures, coins or mementos, and if they find any, will give them back to the homeowners. They clean up the property to allow them to rebuild. Team Rubicon came to the Hill, did site surveys, looked at about eight properties and found three that were within the scope of work it could handle. “We have cleaned up two properties and expect to do one more on the Hill during the Nov. 3 weekend,” said Frazier.

According to Frazier, his organization partnered with Idyllwild resident Julie Morgan as the local point of contact. “We had her go around and talk to the homeowners. Restaurateur Paul White and a number of other restaurant owners donated meals. We are working with trying to get tied into the county emergency management division with Riverside County District 1 Supervisor Kevin Jeffries.”