Wednesday, July 25, the third of four consecutive days of heat warnings, started with blue skies, hardly any clouds, but hot. No one but one man, an arsonist, had any idea how hot that day and days that followed would get.
The Cranston Fire began that morning. At 11:45 a.m., 911 (emergency dispatch) received a call reporting the fire. It quickly endangered the town, moving near Idyllwild Arts Academy and spreading east below Double View Drive.
By Thursday morning, Gov. Jerry Brown had declared a state of emergency in Riverside County because of this blaze. The Federal Emergency Disaster Administration also issued its disaster declaration.
The trees, shrubs and vegetation along Highway 74, west to Hemet, began burning. A huge column of black smoke rose into the sky. It could be seen for miles. Idyllwild Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, and local Cal Fire and Riverside County Fire units were alerted and responded.
Before noon, Highway 74 was closed to all traffic but fire emergency vehicles.
By 12:37 p.m., Highway 243 from Banning was closed to traffic, too. The fire plumes were towering over the Hill and creating shadows in the desert.
Two minutes later, “Cal Fire wants the entire mountain shut down,” read California Highway Patrol’s online tracking system.
Within four hours, the Cranston Fire, its official name, had grown to 1,200 acres and fire officials could claim no containment. Besides threatening the south edge of Idyllwild, the fire was rapidly approaching Mountain Center. Power went out during the afternoon. The outage affected 4,000 customers in Idyllwild and Mountain Center, and another 5,200 Anza Electric Cooperative customers.
Evacuations of Mountain Center communities, including south to Apple Valley and Hurkey Creek, and Idyllwild were ordered. Riverside County quickly established an emergency evacuation center at Banning High School, at the base of the Hill along Highway 243.
By evening, the fire had consumed 4,700 acres, with no containment. Some houses already had been destroyed. But Cal Fire also reported that Brandon McGlover, 32, of Temecula, had been arrested. He initially was charged with five counts of arson to wildland. Two days later, Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin announced that his office had filed 15 felony counts related to nine separate fires. The largest was the Cranston Fire. The nine arson fires were all set the same day, July 25, and were in the Idyllwild, Anza and Sage areas.
At the end of the second day, the fire was estimated to have grown to 7,500 acres and containment was 5 percent. More than a thousand firefighters and support were already on scene.
Thursday was the critical day for the Cranston Fire. Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz said, “Idyllwild dodged a bullet. Incredible firefighting, aggressive air attack and the fuel breaks made the difference.”
As the fire continued to spread Friday, air attack kept dropping water and retardant to slow its advance. Late in the afternoon, Southern California Edison had restored power to Idyllwild and most of the Hill. The exceptions were Mountain Center and the Anza Coop.
On Sunday morning, July 29, after more than 13,000 acres, several residences and other structures had been burned, the evacuation was lifted. Residents could begin returning home.
Monday evening, the Incident Management Team organized a community meeting at Idyllwild School. They discussed the fire size, the damage it caused and plans for control. Several times a comment from a fire official was followed by thunderous and grateful applause.
“Every day has been better and better,” said IMT Operations Section Chief Billy Steers.
Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Frank James complimented the community on its attitude, both during and after the evacuation.
“This community is awesome, and we appreciate it. We appreciate your patience during this stressing and frustrating time,” James said.
The principal disappointment was that Highway 74 west to Hemet would remain closed for days. The only ways to and from Idyllwild were Highway 243 north to Banning, or Highway 74 southeast to Palm Desert and Highway 371 west to Temecula.
The fire’s damage to trees and road structures required Caltrans to take precautions before opening the roads. The work included Southern California Edison replacing damaged electric poles, and Caltrans replacing and repairing guard rails and more.
The Cranston Fire started 10 days after the fifth anniversary of the Mountain Fire. Ironically, the areas burned in the earlier fire had been torched again, but with substantially less dangerous fuel, helping firefighters.
Fire officials also attributed the work done to create and to maintain fuel breaks around the town as critical safety investments.
Normality has been slowly returning. Driving west to Hemet, the burned areas are clearly visible for miles. It will take years for vegetation to return.
On Thursday, Aug. 2, the IMT returned command of the fire to the San Bernardino National Forest. The team had been managing the response to the fire for a week.
The next day most of the closures within the San Jacinto Ranger District of the SBNF were lifted. “Recreational sites that remain closed include the South Ridge Trail, the South Ridge Road and a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail,” according to the Aug. 4 update. These closures were to remain in effect through July 31, 2019, but were lifted mid-December, including the portion of the PCT closed since the 2013 Mountain Fire.
On Aug. 4, full power was restored to the Anza Electric Co-op customers.
Finally, on Saturday, Aug. 10, the Forest Service announced that the Cranston Fire was 100 percent contained. It had burned 13,139 acres.
Highway 74 was opened with escorts on Aug. 3. But on Saturday night, Aug. 11, Caltrans removed the need for escort vehicles.
However, Caltrans Public Information Officer Shelli Lombardo cautioned that some delays would still occur as work continues on the damaged portions of the highway.
Next became the alerts and warnings about flooding and debris flows.
One of the top 10 stories for 2017 described the purchase of Jo’An’s Restaurant, which was in the circle in front of the Fort and across Ridgeview Drive from the Gastrognome. It sold during the fall and was razed.
In 2018, Idypark replaced it.
Memorial Day 2018 was the dedication of Idypark, which returned the site to its original purpose. For many years in the 1950s into the 1970s, the site was called Eleanor Park, a reference to Eleanor Johnson, wife of Jerry Johnson, one of the builders of Idyllwild after World War II.
“As the center of town, we envision it to be a peaceful, beautiful location for all to enjoy,” wrote Dave Butterfield, who with his wife Loie, own Idylpark LLC, the new owner of the parcel.
Two other local business people, Shane Stewart, owner of Idyllwild Realty, and Bob Hughes of Hughes Properties, contributed to the effort making Idypark a reality for the benefit and enjoyment of the community.
Last spring, in anticipation of the park’s opening and dedication, Pine Cove Water District donated three sequoia trees to the site. The trees were on the district’s property in Dutch Flats. PCWD General Manager Jerry Holldber told the board that Butterfield assured him that sufficient water would be available for the trees at their new location.
An arborist was contracted to develop a plan for protecting the massive sequoias already on the site. Next, the stonewall was built along the pathways into the park center.
At the center of Idypark stands a 50-foot flag pole, which was dedicated to first responders and veterans.
“I feel we owe that to veterans and first responders,” Butterfield said. “They take a lot of abuse for things they haven’t done.” Many were present at the dedication, which American Legion Post 800’s Color Guard led. Buzz Holmes directed the Idyllwild Master Chorale and Local Color in several patriotic songs.
Just prior to the Idypark dedication was the ground breaking for the Idyllwild Community Center.
At that ceremony, Riverside County 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington read a county Board of Supervisors proclamation, which recognizes the Butterfields, not only for the gift of the Community Center, but also for the creation of Idypark.
Originally from New England, Butterfield said, “It’s not unusual to see a village square in the towns. Every time we looked at this it was a perfect place — a present for the community.
“There’s no place in town to just sit and talk,” he continued. “Here, the community can enjoy the village square and it’s always been a vision of ours.”
Cannabis activities, from growing to selling, will be legal in Riverside County in 2019. The Board of Supervisors approved Ordinance 348.4898, which establishes regulations and development standards for cannabis activities within the unincorporated areas of the county.
As of Dec. 26, 2018, the county Planning Department began to accept conditional use permit applications for testing, distribution, manufacturing and wholesale nurseries of commercial cannabis.
Applicants for commercial cannabis retail and cultivation uses must participate in the county’s proposal process. The county will seek and evaluate proposals from interested parties. In the first year of implementation of the ordinance, the county will accept and process 50 cultivation and 19 retail conditional use applications. This process will be the basis for selecting and awarding county business licenses for cannabis selling and growing.
In August 2017, the board held a workshop clarifying that cannabis activities were still illegal within the unincorporated areas of Riverside County despite the electorate’s approval of statewide Proposition 64 and the Adult Use of Marijuana Act passed in November 2016.
The board did direct staff to prepare a workshop in early 2018 to discuss the issues around legalization of cannabis activities and the resulting effect on unincorporated communities. The workshop was held March 20.
Supervisor Kevin Jeffries (1st District) related how illegal dispensaries open, are shut down and reopen throughout his district without paying any county revenue. While he opposed Prop 64, he shared, “We’re losing this war. The voters of my district voted in favor of [Prop 64]. In my unincorporated areas, the voters have spoken.”
After more discussion, the supervisors agreed that staff should continue to develop ordinances for the regulation of the budding business.
Any new ordinance affecting land-use would pass through the county’s Planning Commission, which held two hearings — June 20 and July 18.
Dozens of residents came forward to support and to oppose the legalization of commercial cannabis in the unincorporated areas of Riverside County. Often the opposition came from residents who felt they were already experiencing, on a smaller scale, changes and impositions that would make their lives and communities far less comfortable if cannabis activities, particularly cultivation, were permitted.
Since cannabis businesses would be subject to county zoning and land use rules, the draft ordinance prohibited cultivation in several all residential zones, including R-R, R-A and W-2 zones.
But several speakers who live in these zones objected. One Anza resident argued that her 20-acre parcel, zoned R-R, was large enough to apply any setback requirement to protect neighbors from the odors.
Several Aguanga residents argued the opposite. They were glad that cultivation and other activities would be prohibited in their rural neighborhoods. The condition of their roads was a primary reason for restricting any commercial activity in their area.
At the end of the June Planning Commission hearing, staff was asked to revise the ordinance and address several questions posed during the hearing.
After the July hearing, the commission approved the draft ordinance and referred it to the Board of Supervisors for approval or rejection.
The board met Oct. 23, and after listening to the public and debate among the supervisors, approved the ordinance. The vote was 3-2, supervisors John Tavaglione and Marion Ashley opposing the changes. Some details, such as whether cultivation may be permitted within the R-R, R-A and W-2 zones, which are residential, is to be further studied and is still to be decided.
Commercial cannabis operators and owners will have to meet several regulatory standards. First will be a criminal background check. Any felony conviction can disqualify an applicant, according to Charissa Leach, assistant director of the county Transportation and Land Management Agency.
Each business must be consistent with the overall general plan and the requirement of the location’s zone. Obtaining a conditional use permit for the business will be required and that process includes two public hearings — before the Planning Commission and then the supervisors.
Development agreements with the county will be another requirement. These will specify the operations fees, as well as stipulate any community benefit, such as roads or parks, which the operator would be willing to provide.
All operators must be at least age 21, provide a security plan and obtain a state license. For growers, other requirements and limitations include methods to control odors, no visible live plants, a “will serve” letter from the local water district and a 1-acre limit. Nurseries are not considered growers, consequently, no mature plants may be for sale at a nursery.
The ordinance does include two significant prohibitions. No outdoor cultivation will be permitted. All of the cultivation permitted must be under some form of cover and not visible beyond the property.
The process for applying for a retail or cultivation permit has not been announced.
Hill water rate increases
From December 2017 until December 2018, Hill residents from north of Pine Cove to Garner Valley received news that their water rates were being increased, and they had to digest its implication.
On Dec. 29, 2017, the Fern Valley Water District directors approved a rate increase. The meeting, attended by 20 customers, lasted about 90 minutes.
Many who came opposed or questioned the proposal, but General Manager Victor Jimenez explained the need for the increase and how it would be implemented. He stressed that for an average bill (which is for two months) the added cost would be $23.80, for a total bimonthly bill of $100. The monthly increase would be about $12.
The first water tier will be $4 per hundred cubic feet compared to the current rate of $4.35 per hundred cubic feet, Jimenez added.
The added revenue would support the district’s reserves and capital projects going forward. One of the newly established reserve accounts would be for years or periods of drought when the public does conserve and reduces water consumption, which results in less revenue for the district.
“When drought years don’t generate the revenues we expect, then we don’t need to raise rates immediately,” Jimenez said about this reserve account.
Without the rate increase, the district estimated that its reserves, which are about $1.2 million currently, would be consumed for operations and capital investments by 2022.
In March, the Pine Cove Water District directors scheduled a public hearing for their rate increase. About 30 customers attended the PCWD May hearing. Similar to FVWD, most in attendance opposed or were skeptical of the needed revenues. The basic objection expressed was the rate increase was too steep in a short time. One person proposed spreading the increase over 10 years rather than five years.
Attention focused on the water usage rate increase. Previously, Pine Cove customers paid $1.80 per 1,000 gallons each billing period (every two months) if usage is 7,500 gallons of water or less. At the end of the five-year rate increase, based on the board’s proposal, the cost of 1,000 gallons will be $8 per billing period. For a customer using 7,500 gallons, they would pay another $279 a year for water.
The fixed rate increase, which is currently $62 per billing period, will be $80 per billing period, about 29 percent more than the current rate. For six billing periods, that would cost the user $108 more per year.
The board unanimously approved the rate increases, which were effective June 1, 2018.
Meanwhile, the Idyllwild Water District was studying its options for raising rates for both water and sewer services. In January, the board contracted with NBS of Temecula to study the current water and sewer rates and propose possible changes to the rate structures.
Beginning in February, NBS made the first of several presentations to the board. On June 20, IWD held its public hearing on the rate increases. Similar to the other two districts, most customers at the hearing objected, nevertheless, the directors adopted the new five-year rate schedule.
Of the three districts, IWD’s cash balance is the largest. However, the board felt the need to implement an adequate capital improvement program would require more funding for pipeline maintenance and replacement and the water treatment facility. The capital investment going forward would be greater than the district has spent during the past two decades. Work has been deferred and the needs have accumulated and exceed the current district resources, the directors said, defending the increase.
“Our income does not meet the cost of production. Almost no maintenance has been done in the district for about 20 years,” said Director Peter Szabadi. “We have to make it up.”
Finally, in December 2018, the fourth water district, Lake Hemet Municipal Water District, which provides water service to Garner Valley, raised its rates for all customers, including the 240 in Garner Valley.
Again, the board was unanimous in its intent, despite vociferous local objections. The principal issue raising the ire of the Garner Valley customers was a $1.7 million charge LHMWD staff said was from some past legal cases related to Garner Valley water. The litigation costs were not fully collected from the Garner Valley base. About $1.7 million remains outstanding and the board does not believe its customers in Hemet or San Jacinto should be responsible for these costs.
“The $1.7 million deficit came from two cases involving eminent domain and water rights,” stated Director and Finance Committee Chair Todd Foutz.
The last Garner Valley rate increase was 2010. Some of those revenues began to reduce the borrowed debt. In 2010, it was about $2.3 million, according to General Manger Mike Gow.
The next onslaught of Hill water rate increases should begin to occur in 2023.
Idyllwild Fire ambulance
The Idyllwild Fire Protection District gained formal approval from Riverside County to provide emergency medical services beyond the bounds of its district. Whether this is a new authority or a revival of service to areas, where IFPD has previously provided emergency medical service may be fodder for a political debate; but residents, particularly in Mountain Center, feel more comfortable and slightly safer with the decision.
Before the county Emergency Management Department acceded to the community’s urging and pleading, Idyllwild Fire Department was limited to its formal jurisdictional boundaries unless the county’s Emergency Dispatch felt more help was needed.
The Idyllwild Fire Department has served the district since before 1981 when the state enacted medical emergency service laws. Consequently, the department has an exclusive right to serve this district. But its exclusivity does not apply to the rest of the Hill.
One consequence of this policy was that emergency medical service, such as an ambulance, was the county’s responsibility first. Thus, the American Medical Response ambulance, under contract to the county and stationed on Franklin Drive in Pine Cove, would be dispatched to calls, such as traffic crashes on Highway 74 before IFPD equipment was called, although the IFPD location is closer and its ambulances could arrive on scene sooner.
Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz raised the issue with the IFPD Commission at its March meeting. It defined the issue as the county’s inability or unwillingness to use the “closest available unit” policy.
Areas to the east and south, such as Mountain Center and Garner Valley, are outside the IFD exclusive area, and are considered non-exclusive. Consequently, IFD may be the closest available unit when a medical emergency occurs, and the chief and Commission argue it should be dispatched to those calls.
If time is critical in an emergency, then the closest unit could be vital for the patient or victim’s survival.
Reitz described two crashes on Highway 74 when IFD was the closest unit, but were told to “stand down, this isn’t your jurisdiction,” Reitz said. The commission asked President Rhonda Andrewson to write the supervisors a letter to open discussion on the policy.