U.S. Forest Service Battalion Chief Matt Ahearn describes the prescribed burns that the Forest Service plans to conduct this winter. The burns will range from the Vista Grande Fire Station south to Thomas Mountain.
Photo by JP Crumrine

Local residents should expect to see smoke in the sky and perhaps some flames nearby. Local state and federal fire agencies will be conducting prescribed burns and pile burns this winter.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service was possibly to begin burning piles created from brush clearance of 12 acres around the Vista Grande Fire Station. Later in the week, there could be pile burns of slash near the Keenwild, Kenworthy and Cranston fire stations. These might be delayed if “weather conditions degrade,” according to the Forest Service.

On Thursday evening, Nov. 29, state and federal fire officials held a community meeting at the Idyllwild Nature Center to discuss their plans this winter for maintaining and expanding the fuelbreaks around Idyllwild and Pine Cove, and elsewhere on the Hill.

Representatives from Cal Fire, Riverside County Fire Department, the California State Parks, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management all attended and discussed their plans for prescribed burns this winter.

But everyone emphasized that the timing and ability to burn is totally dependent on the weather. The recent rains have been helpful.

Several existing fuelbreaks have already been constructed and were instrumental is shielding Idyllwild from the Cranston Fire, said several of the firefighters.

“We’re striving to string together all the fuelbreaks,” said Cal Fire Capt. Michael Sebastian. “I’m convinced we would have had fire in the town without these fuelbreaks.”

While the fuelbreaks did not themselves stop the fire, they slowed it down sufficiently for firefighters and air resources to engage the conflagration, and prevent it from burning Idyllwild. This is why they want to ensure the fuelbreaks are maintained and why new fuelbreaks will be added.

Cal Fire plans work to maintain the Southridge and Westridge breaks around Idyllwild and more work in the Stone Creek area, Sebastian said.

Work will continue on the Red Hill Fuelbreak, which complements the Pine Cove Fuelbreak. Cal Fire has obtained agreements from private property owners for fuelbreak work on their property.

Battalion Chief Matt Ahearn, on the San Jacinto Ranger District, discussed last winter’s burns and this winter’s Forest Service plans for the Pine Cove Fuelbreak and also on Thomas Mountain.

Last February and March on the Pine Cove Fuelbreak, the Forest Service burned nearly 3,000 piles of debris and slash. This year, Ahearn said there will be more pile burns but they also intend to conduct a major broadcast burn in the area, too.

He stressed that these types of burns are intended to reduce ground fuels and not damage mature trees. By eliminating the ground fuel, the likelihood of a major and fast-moving wildfire is reduced.

“Citizens envision a ‘clear cut’ as the result, but it’s not that at all,” Ahearn said. “There shouldn’t be much of a long-term visual impact.”

They will be working on Westridge this winter, too. These types of prescribed burns can continue for nearly 10 hours and some overnight, but he added the fire crews monitor the burns and are prepared to stop the burn if necessary.

The Forest Service will again be conducting a broadcast burn in the Thomas Mountain area. In the winter of 2018, 770 acres were burned. This year’s plan will include that many and, if weather helps, more than 1,000 acres may be burned.

California State Parks has a plan to extend its fuelbreak along the northern and eastern side of Pine Cove, said Ken Kietzer, senior environmental scientist in the Inland Empire District for California State Parks. This area is about 270 acres.

“Most of [Mt. San Jacinto State Park] is wilderness and there have been no wildfires there for a long time,” he said. “Our work near Stone Creek Fuelbreak will dovetail with the Forest Service project. We’ve been doing thinning and pile burning for a while. This year, we hope to do a broadcast burn. It’s a very narrow window for acceptable conditions.”

According to James Gannon of the BLM, its winter 2019 project will be below Poppet Flats, more likely seen from Banning. “It’s about 10 acres of grasses.”

The Forest Service’s San Jacinto Ranger District Forester Charles Wentz began the session with an explanation of the benefits from the prescribed burns.

“First and foremost is community defense,” he stated. The network of fuelbreaks do slow wildfire, which gives firefighters a better chance to keep the fire away from homes and other structures. “Removing the ground fuels makes it more effective,” he added.

Prescribed burns also benefit the forest. Wildfires in forested areas are natural. Historically, the natural fires have not been as large not as intense as the recent ones. But fire does improve the nutrient soil for trees and saplings.

“Making the forest healthier makes the forest more resilient to fires,” he said.

Thirdly, prescribed burns, which mimic natural fires, create a discontinuous range of ground fuels. Reducing this fuel loading inhibits the fire’s ability to just run without anything to slow it, according to Wentz.

Among the audience questions was one about what incentives would encourage more logging on the Hill and thus greater thinning of the San Jacinto forest.

In response, Wentz did say that he would try to sell some of the burned and damaged logs from the Cranston Fire. But salvage sales of burnt timber have not always been beneficial. Exacerbating the difficultly on the forest is the lack of any nearby lumber mills. Any savings from reduced timber costs are offset by the higher costs for transporting the logs.

Another reason logging here is discouraged is the lack of forest roads. Much of the area would need helicopter logging, according to Wentz. This also raises its cost.

Several other attendees expressed frustration with the lack of abatement on their neighbor’s property. Officials said Idyllwild Fire does conduct inspections in the town and Riverside County Code Enforcement is responsible in the other unincorporated areas.