Road closures will not limit access in an emergency

The Mountain Area Safety Taskforce met Wednesday, June 12 with attendance remaining slightly less than normal, due to the current road closures from Hemet and Banning. MAST meets about quarterly.

Fire officials — federal, state and local — described their winter projects and preparation for the summer and fall 2019 fire season.

The U.S. Forest Service’s fire assets are slightly hobbled with the highway closures. Although there are six fully staffed engines, according to acting Fire Chief Salvador Reyes, for the San Jacinto Ranger District, two are on the other side of the closure. Cranston (Station 54) is in Valle Vista west of the Highway 74 work, and the Vista Grande and VG Hot Shots (Station 51) are north of the two washouts on Highway 243. 

Reyes also announced that Alandale, Engine 57, is currently closed, and he did not have an estimate of when that station would reopen. The helicopter, which is based at Keenwild, has returned to the district.

Despite these problems, none of the fire officials felt they would pose any problem if an emergency did occur. District Ranger Julie Hall felt comfortable with the available resources.

“We have USFS E56 Keenwild,  Keenwild Helitack, E52 Kenworthy,  E353 Anza all on this side and BDF Cranston E54 will be able to come through on the highway for an emergency event,” Idyllwild Fire Protection District Chief Mark LaMont said reassuringly. “It is also important to note that these USFS engines each carry a five-person crew. We also have Cal Fire E23 Pine Cove, E53 Garner Valley, E3162 Anza, E30 Pinyon, E77 Lake Riverside all on this side of the 243 closure.”

Cal Fire Division Chief Bill Weiser noted that Caltrans has agreed to permit Cal Fire engines to pass over Highway 74 in an emergency. And LaMont said IFPD has the same agreement with Caltrans.

The Forest Service’s prescribed burns, including in the Thomas Mountain area, have ended until fall or next winter, according to Reyes. But he expects the broadcast burns to continue next year in that area.

Cal Fire and the Riverside County Fire Department have been continuing their work on the Pine Cove fuelbreaks, according to Weiser.

In addition, Cal Fire, in cooperation with Caltrans, will be thinning vegetation along highways 74 and 243.

“We want to clear the right-of-way between the Forest Service lands and the roadway,” he said. “It’s worth our time and efforts in anticipation of the roads reopening.”

Even though there are closures, both highways are part of the Hill evacuation plan. Keeping them clear is an important part of the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, he emphasized.

The first abatement inspections in Idyllwild have been completed, said LaMont and the second inspections have just been finished. While 524 properties failed the first inspection, that was an improvement from 2018.

He also mentioned that the fire commissioners passed a new ordinance to ensure properties that fail three inspections will still be abated.

“Ordinance 01-19 will allow us to force abatement and any private property within Idyllwild jurisdiction falls under the ordinance,” LaMont told the group.

Besides weather, either flooding or drought, insects attack the local trees, often killing them, which can also create a fire danger. Cal Fire Division Chief Gregg Bratcher, forester for the mountain, said that neither the cold winter and spring nor the heavy rains seems to have diminished the Goldspotted oak borer population.

“The GSOB is alive and well this side of the mountain,” Bratcher reported. “Nothing seems to make a difference in it.”

He also mentioned that some members of the public are concerned that oaks with GSOB infestations are being felled but not removed and the insect just moves onto nearby healthy oaks. He indicated that this will be examined and ensured that downed oak does not transmit the GSOB to healthy trees.

Also, the GSOB habitat is spreading. A population was discovered near Oak Glen and a new one in Orange County, too.

Norm Walker, president of the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council, announced that Kathy Wilson has been hired as the new executive director, replacing Edwina Scott, who retired in May. Wilson has already started.

MCFSC has been working hard this winter. It has used much of its Cal Fire grant, according to Walker. They have done work on nearly 60 properties and have a backlog of about 30 more.

“As the demand for fire wood slackens, the Woodies will be able to do some small abatement projects this summer,” Walker added.