Local fire officials changing

Sitting at the head table of the April 10 Mountain Area Safety Taskforce meeting were (from left) Stacie Kelly, Riverside County Emergency Management Department, Lt. Alfonso Campa, Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Hemet Station, Division Chief Bill Weiser, Riverside County Fire and Cal Fire, Battalion Chief Salvador Reyes, acting Fire management chief for the San Jacinto Ranger District. Not shown, but sitting to Reyes left is Idyllwild Fire Acting Chief Mark LaMont. Photo by JP Crumrine

The Mountain Area Safety Taskforce held its first meeting of 2019, Wednesday April 10. Attendance was slightly less than normal, due to the current road closures from Hemet and Banning.

Several new faces were at the front table. Cal Fire Division Chief Bill Weiser ran the meeting in the absence of his colleague, Chief Gregg Bratcher.

Riverside County Sheriff’s Lt. Alfonso Campa, who joined the Hemet Station staff Feb. 14, during the Valentine’s Day storm, attended his first MAST meeting. His career has included work on drugs, gangs, and search and rescue assignments. 

He mentioned that the Hemet Station has received additional funding to keep staff on the Hill while Highway 74 from Hemet is closed. The Department is also improving the Mountain Station at Lake Hemet. It will serve as a base for search and rescue incidents.

In the four days from Thursday, April 4, through Sunday, April 7, Campa said there had been five separate rescues. One included a hiker falling nearly 100 feet and fracturing his ankle.

Acting Idyllwild Fire Chief Mark LaMont informed the group that the department will be starting its fire abatement inspections on April 15. IFPD inspects about 3,500 parcels, improved and unimproved. In 2018, about 100 properties ultimately failed their inspections.

IFPD distributed postcards via local post office boxes alerting property owners of the initiation of inspections with a list of the abatement steps, most commonly overlooked. For example, removal of leaves, needles or other vegetation from roofs, gutters, decks and porches.

Also this year, the IFPD Commission discussed and is considering renewal of a forced abatement program for those properties that fail the inspections, LaMont said.

The district will be testing to fill two firefighter positions later this month, he added.

Heading the U.S. Forest Service staff at the meeting was Battalion Chief Salvador Reyes. Currently, he is the acting fire manager for the San Jacinto Ranger District since Fred Espinoza left in January.

The Forest Service is staffing for fire season, including the arrival of the helicopter in May. 

“I expect all seven stations will be manned seven days a week or a minimum of five stations depending on availability of qualified staff,” Reyes announced. The district is assessing the placement of equipment while the highways remain closed, he added.

This week, the Forest Service began repairing the very badly damaged forest road, according to Reyes. Some of the work was identified in the Cranston Fire Burned Area Emergency Report. But the winter rains created significant damage, too.

Representing Riverside County’s Emergency Management Department was Stacie Kelly, emergency services coordinator. Since Jerry Hagen retired in December, Kelly is serving District 3, although she is actually responsible for District 5. She has been a firefighter with Cal Fire and worked at the dispatch center too.

The county has been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to support the award of grant money for recovery and repair of the winter storm damages. Kelly said, “So far the damage in Riverside County has reached $80 million.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom requested the federal government declare a major disaster area for 28 counties (see accompanying story on A1).

During the discussion of work this winter, Forest Service Battalion Chief Chris Fogle reported that the piles in Pine Cove, along the West Ridge fuel break, and near the administrative station sites have all  been burned.

The Thomas Mountain prescribed burn is being monitored. If weather cooperates, there may be additional burns in that area before fire season begins, Fogle said.

Since Highway 243 is one of the escape routes, Weiser shared that he has met with Reyes to develop a plan for clearing brush along the roadway while it is closed. He also has invited Southern California Edison to participate, but has not received a definitive answer yet.

Clearing and cleaning will be easier and faster than if it were conducted while traffic was passing through the work areas, he noted.

Weiser reported that Cal Fire’s fire season staffing will begin increasing later this month. This will include six crews dedicated to fuel reduction, one of which will be assigned to Riverside County during the spring and summer.

Also, Weiser noted that he is working with the state fire marshal to begin applying inspection standards for unimproved property to unimproved parcels on the Hill.

He mentioned that there have been some discussions at the County Fire Department about recommending the inclusion of Avery Canyon, south of Hemet, in the Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

From the Mountain Community Fire Safe Council, President Norm Walker announced that Executive Director Edwina Scott is planning to retire in May and Director Jerry Holldber will be leaving the board.

Also the road closures have limited MCFSC’s ability to transport trees infested with gold spotted oak borers off the Hill. This work will be limited until Highway 74 has reopened, he said.