Torrey Gerstner receives his official firefighter shield from his sister, Natalie, during the Idyllwild Fire Protection District’s Aug. 27 meeting.     Photo by JP Crumrine

With three of the five commissioners present, the Idyllwild Fire Protection District (IFPD) Commission held a succinct meeting Tuesday, Aug. 27.

Fire Chief Mark LaMont addressed several recent public concerns about the possibility of a fire coming into town from the north and preparation for potential evacuations.

Modeling fire behavior has been a tool for scientists and fire agencies for years. With the help of Dan Felix, former U.S. Forest Service Division Chief for the San Jacinto Ranger District and a fire behavior analyst, LaMont has been developing more than 30 possible fire scenarios that could threaten Idyllwild.

Their results dispel the concern that a major fire would easily enter town. LaMont quickly added that it was possible, but the result of the models suggest it is a low probability.

Creating their own models of potential fires was necessary. Recent comments in the media about potential fires to the north seemed to lack actual historic data, particularly of wind events, according to LaMont.

“Since 1980, in less than 2% of the fires, do we get any measurable wind from the north or northwest,” he said. “The highest measured wind was 8 miles per hour.” 

The wind speed measurements used in the models were an average gathered at the Forest Service’s Keenwild Ranger Station between January 1989 and December 2018.

While Santa Ana winds do sweep over the San Jacinto Mountains, the mountains’ height deflects much of the wind to the southern end of town, according to the models that Felix and LaMont developed. 

Secondly, LaMont noted, “Heat rises and so does fire. Fire moves up. It moves 17% faster up a hill than down.”

The geography of Idyllwild is a depression, so unless a fire came from the west, such as the Cranston Fire, it is mostly moving down the slopes surrounding town.

It is not impossible to have a fire in town, he stressed. But it would more likely start in town than burn into it, such as the house fire on Linger Lane several weeks ago.

The U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire have invested significant resources in constructing fuel breaks around Idyllwild and Pine Cove. These are not complete and must be maintained, but their value was demonstrated during last year’s Cranston Fire. The fuel break along Double View Drive protected most structures and largely deflected the fire further across Highway 243 and south towards Garner Valley.

Aerial photographs show the location of the fuel breaks and the fire’s path along them.

Property abatement and defensible space are critical to reducing fire threats and damage. LaMont described the cooperation of Idyllwild residents with these needs. 

After the first abatement inspections of 3,571 parcels in May, more than 3,000 passed. The 85% compliance was a record. The second inspection of the more than 500 parcels that failed the initial inspection led to the compliance of an additional 260 parcels. During June and July, the third inspection was conducted and only 51 parcels failed.

“That’s 1.5%. Property owners stepped up and 98.5% met the requirements,” LaMont said proudly. 

While he was not dismissing the possibility of fire in Idyllwild or Pine Cove, he argued that it was significantly less likely than the Paradise Fire last summer. Idyllwild’s geography is different and has a higher rate of abatement.

LaMont also mentioned that the department was working with county emergency management and fire officials to develop a siren alert system for the entire hill across the mountain plateau. The initial estimated cost for a system that large is $3 million, according to LaMont, who added it will depend upon the number of sites, improvements and equipment. 

The $3-million cost is more than the IFPD budget. Later that day at the Caltrans meeting to discuss highways 74 and 243, Riverside County Emergency Management Department Director Bruce Barton said his office was seeking funding for the siren system.

FY 2019/20 budget

Prior to the fire discussion, the commission gave final approval to its FY 2019/20 budget. No changes were made to the budget since the preliminary approval in May. A tentative budget must be adopted by July 1. A final budget must be adopted by Oct. 1.

For the year, the department projects total revenues of about $2.4 million and $71,000 less in expenses. 

Commissioner Henry Sawicki did note that the number of mutual aid assignments were less this year than in 2018. This will ultimately reduce the revenue. However, department costs will be less because of the reduced need for overtime and extra shifts.

Corrected action  

The commission approved the appointment of LaMont as fire chief, including the contract negotiated with him. This was initially done during the closed session portion of the July meeting. However, the final action was not taken in open session as required by the Brown Act when the employee is unrepresented, in this case, LaMont.

Acting Chair Commissioner Ralph Hoetger said the board should confirm it again in open session. “Maybe we had a minor violation,” he said. The vote was 3-0. Commissioners Jerry Buchanan and Larry Donahoo were absent.