Much of last week’s Idyllwild Fire Protection District (IFPD) Commission meeting was devoted to a discussion of wildfire readiness, evacuation planning, and emergency alerts.

The issue of emergency planning was also a topic at the Riverside County’s Board of Supervisors’ July 23 meeting, the same day as IFPD’s meeting. (See accompanying story on page A3.)

Idyllwild residents Tom Paulek and Sue Nash requested that the topic of wildfire readiness, including evacuation plans and alerts, be placed on the commission’s agenda for the July 23 meeting.

They requested a copy of an evacuation plan for Idyllwild and Pine Cove from IFPD, Cal Fire and the county’s Emergency Management Department (EMD). 

Paulek has stressed that he is concerned that Idyllwild is very vulnerable to a wind-driven fire, which could create similar devastating results that happened to Paradise during the Camp Fire last summer.

Opening the discussion, Acting Fire Chief Mark LaMont told them that the evacuation plans could not be made public. He had prepared a brief statement explaining his reasons for withholding the plan.

He believes that the plan could confuse a person who is unfamiliar with firefighting and emergency responses. Further, it’s possible someone might misuse the plan, accidentally or intentionally. The final reason is the possibility of chaos ensuing from the dissemination of information, not based on the real time situation.

In essence, he argued that each fire is different — direction, wind, topography, time of day. Fire officials have plans ready and will take action.

He also stated that other public agency members of the Mountain Area Safety Taskforce (MAST) agreed with this decision. LaMont prepared a two page document dated July 3 titled “Emergency Cooperators Information Memorandum” to “provide clear and unified information as it pertains to the ongoing development, planning and implementation of evacuations to the mountain communities … “ 

The document states that evacuations are dynamic in nature and releasing a static evacuation plan is not in the best interest of the public. LaMont asked other agencies to sign on agreeing that they would not release an evacuation plan. Current signors of the document are Jaime Gamboa, Fire and Aviation Management Officer for the U.S. Forest Service and Capt. Mike Alvarez of the California Highway Patrol. Per communication with both agencies, Cal Fire and EMD will not be signing the document. 

“We truly believe it is not prudent and not in the best interest of the public to disclose this document,” he stated. His memorandum cites government code 6255 (public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record) and evidence code section 1040 (disclosure of the information is against the public interest because there is a necessity for preserving the confidentiality of the information that outweighs the necessity for disclosure in the interest of justice).

When another community member, Rick Bashel asked whether IFPD and other fire departments were prepared for a fire with the current road closures, LaMont replied, “Yes.”

He added that the Cranston Fire substantially reduced the fuel load between Idyllwild and Mountain Center and the evacuation of Pine Cove and Idyllwild to Highway 74 would not be a problem.

But verbal assurances were not satisfactory for Paulek. He again stressed his concern about a wind-driven fire starting in or north of Pine Cove. According to his conversation with Dr. Richard Minnich, a fire ecology expert at the University of California, Riverside, no significant fire has burned in Pine Cove in more than a century.

“Regardless of the ignition source — lightning, a structure, or a campfire — it’s the fuel load that matters,” Paulek stated. “I no longer feel safe after the Paradise fire.”

He also recommended that IFPD or fire officials, such as MAST, hold some public meetings to gather community input for an evacuation plan.

In response, Commission President Jerry Buchanan reminded Nash and Paulek that the commission meeting was a public community meeting. 

“We know Highway 243 is out,” said Buchanan. “We can go to Mountain Center. Caltrans and its contractor [Ames Construction] will open Highway 74 to the west or you can take Highway 74 east to the desert or Temecula.”

“You do not decide what the public needs to know and the public needs to know we can be evacuated,” Paulek stated. LaMont and Battalion Chief Matt Ahern of USFS both assured him that fire and law enforcement officials understand the need for a safe and calm evacuation. Experience and the preparation with the planning will allow for adaptations, if needed, because of the specific circumstances.

Besides the physical plan for evacuation, Paulek also strongly advocated for the installation of an emergency alert system, such as a siren. In particular, for a potential night fire, could a siren alert residents to seek information on the internet, cell phones or use the local emergency radio station, WNKI-AM 1610.

IFPD is leading the initiative to re-establish a working siren for fire or other disaster alerts, said Commissioner Rhonda Andrewson. It is working with other public safety agencies to secure the funding to accomplish this task, she and LaMont confirmed.

While this discussion did not require any votes, the next two items on the agenda did. The commission unanimously agreed to issue a request for legal counsel. IFPD’s current legal firm is Varner & Brandt’s Riverside office. Brad Neufeld is the partner and attorney who works with IFPD.

At its April meeting, with two commissioners absent, the three present commissioners did not agree to move forward with solicitation. However, at that meeting, Andrewson said adamantly, “I know we need to make a change.”

Changing the frequency and time of the commission meetings was also on the agenda. The motion failed in a 1-3 vote. Andrewson argued that bimonthly meetings were sufficient. If a board action is needed in a month the commission does not meet, a special meeting can be called. 

However, Buchanan pointed out that certain actions, such as budget approvals, must be done in a regular meeting. Buchanan, along with commissioners Henry Sawicki and Ralph Hoetger, voted against changing the meeting schedule and time.