Artist Keith Blum, of Palm Springs, was so taken by the Cranston Fire scars on his rides from the desert that he volunteered to paint a mural in tribute to local firefighters on the rear wall of the Idyllwild Library. Photo by JP Crumrine

Wildfires can create chaos, loss and destruction. As people return following an evacuation, they express gratitude to firefighters informally and graciously. The July Cranston Fire was no exception.

Except the sight of the burn scars and lingering smell of smoke inspired Keith Blum of Palm Springs to create a tribute to the firefighters of this community. This “thank you” is more than a sign or placard.

Blum is an artist and his media is frequently walls or other large surfaces. He creates and paints murals for a living throughout the country.

In August, he was riding his bike from Palm Springs to Idyllwild. As he rode through Garner Valley, he saw the Cranston Fire burn scars and could easily detect the smell of smoke.

“It was like the ‘Twilight Zone,’” Blum said, trying to describe and interpret what he saw and felt. “As I rode up [Highway] 74, I pulled over, got off my bike and stared. I was shocked.”

It was a moment only an individual could experience and feel. Blum was so happy to see so much of the valley and Hill still safe. As he continued pedaling to Idyllwild, he decided to create and donate a mural to the Idyllwild community. It would be a tribute to firefighters, “perfect for Idyllwild,” he thought.

With his friend and project manager Bruce Carson, they returned to Idyllwild seeking an appropriate location for his mural. While he paints several a year in private homes, offices and businesses, each year he also donates two or three murals to libraries and groups, such as the American Cancer Society

“Everybody gives back in one way or another,” Blum said. “If you’re rich, you write a check. If not, in some other way.”

After an afternoon in Idyllwild, Blum and Carson spied the back of the Idyllwild Library, which faces the BBVA parking lot.

“This was an excellent spot — the only wall worthy of a mural. It is large enough and it can be seen from the street and park,” Blum said.

He approached Library Manager Shannon Ng, who explained the building belonged to Riverside County. She offered to contact them for Blum. After waiting nearly a month without a response, he asked her who he could call.

This led him to Supervisor Chuck Washington’s office and appointments with county officials. He spoke to several officials, demonstrating insurance, sharing drawings and confirming there would be no cost.

“They didn’t select me, I selected them,” he said, describing his frustration during the wait. Time was slipping. He cannot paint a mural in the rainy season nor did the native Southern Californian wish to paint during Idyllwild’s winter season.

In late September, he received permission to proceed with the painting and he began the work in mid-October. First, he had to draw the rendering of a photograph of six firefighters on the wall. Now he is patiently painting.

Since he started, many Idyllwild businesses have offered help to Blum. Inns have provided rooms for him rather than commuting back and forth to Palm Springs. Restaurants have fed him and Village Hardware has provided paint.