Plans include multiple options in case of emergency

Bruce Barton, director of Riverside County Emergency Management Department.       Photo by JP Crumrine

Roads were not the only topic at the latest Caltrans meeting that brought the town of Idyllwild some good news. Emergency preparedness and response were topics that followed the announcement of the expanded hours for Highway 74 and future reopening of Highway 243.

The road closures this summer have elicited concern about the safety of hill residents and visitors if a significant fire occurred and threatened Idyllwild or Pine Cove.

Public safety, especially the need for another possible evacuation, remains a priority with all the public safety agencies, stressed Bruce Barton, director of the Riverside County Emergency Management Department.

“I want the community to understand that immediately following the [Cranston] fire and non-stop right into the flood planning stage that all the public safety agencies responsible for evacuations and how evacuations would be carried out have continued to discuss and talk to Caltrans and the contractor about the status of those roads,” he began.

While highways 74 and 243 are not open to normal traffic flow, that does not mean they are unusable if an emergency occurred, Barton emphasized. If needed, both highways can be utilized for evacuations and emergency vehicle access.

“We are continually monitoring the road conditions,” he stated.

Barton stressed there are four routes off the hill — Highway 243 to Banning, Highway 74 to Hemet, Highway 74 to Palm Desert and Highway 371 to Temecula. With limited options, he noted there is no plan with one recommended evacuation plan.

Who needs to evacuate, how to conduct the evacuation and its length all depend upon the fire’s behavior. “It’s dynamic,” he said. “Situational awareness will affect those decisions, which are the responsibility of the incident commander and the unified command team.”

Residents should be prepared to evacuate if needed. He recommended listening for red flag alerts or warnings for this area. An alert should heighten one’s awareness of a possible danger moving individuals to prepare for a potential evacuation. A warning is the time to take the action.

Residents should use the EMD website, rivcoready.org. EMD has identified the evacuation zones (rivcoready.org/stormready) and posts notices, alerts, warnings, storm conditions, and Southern California Edison power shutoffs. Individuals can also register for alerts on the website (www.rivcoready.org/AlertRivCo).

Barton stressed that compliance with an evacuation order is needed for several reasons. First is simply self-protection by leaving the threatened or danger zone. Secondly, if one stays and the personal threats from the danger grow, it increases the chance that those who remain will seek help from public safety. Consequently, that removes firefighters from the job of combating and controlling the fire.

Barton admitted that his office and other public safety responders need to do and will do a better job of communicating the likely length of the evacuation and the time when repopulation may occur.

However, information about potential staging areas, shelter-in-place locations, available responders, the number of children at local camps, where to stage vehicles, or locate an incident command post are considered tactical. He was adamant that this type of specific information is only for the incident commander and his/her team. It does not provide added value on how to evacuate.

“We are not going to give this information to potential arsonists,” he stated. “The public interest in not disclosing it outweighs the public interest in disclosing it.”

However, he promised that his department is preparing a plan that will be available to the public by next spring and will include how to be prepared, available communication tools, etc. In addition, EMD is working with the Mile High Radio Club to secure funding to enable the expansion of WNKI-1610 AM from Poppet Flats to Anza.

“It’s a top priority and I’m confident we’ll find some funding,” Barton said.

In addition, EMD, with the help of fire and law enforcement agencies, are studying the implementation of an emergency alert system on the hill using sirens.

“Sirens are good at getting your attention, but they don’t provide information,” he noted. “Your safety is paramount.”

Following Barton, Idyllwild Fire Chief Mark LaMont also spoke and stressed the success public safety agencies have had responding to major fires on the hill in the past 25 years.

From the Bee Canyon fire in 1996 through the Cranston Fire in 2018, six major fires have occurred without the loss of any civilian life.

This is the result of creating fuel breaks around the hill, property abatement and continuous planning and preparation, LaMont stated.

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