A couple weeks ago, The Town Crier ran the first part of a roundtable discussion with public safety officials for a behind-the-scenes look at the Cranston Fire.
Those who joined the roundtable conversation were Cal Fire Division 6 Chief Bill Weiser, Idyllwild Fire Protection District (IFPD) Chief Mark LaMont, California Highway Patrol (CHP) Public Information Officer Darren Meyer, County of Riverside Emergency Management Department (EMD) Senior Public Information Specialist Shane Reichardt, County of Riverside EMD Director Bruce Barton, Lt. Al Campa and Lt. Matt Burden of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, and United States Forest Service (USFS) Battalion Chief Daniel Diaz.
The first part of the series ended with Reichardt discussing the preparations for evacuating Idyllwild and the evacuation triggers.
LaMont told the group that he actually went off duty that morning and had just started leaving town to visit family when he was informed of the fire. He ended up going back home to get his duty truck and responded out to Double View where he tied in with an IFPD engine.
“I got in contact with incident command, which at the time was Matt Ahearn with the U.S. Forest Service,” said LaMont. “Chris Fogle was working as operations, and he assigned me to structure group. I had the responsibility for coordinating the incoming equipment and resources that were doing structure protection out on Inspiration Point.”
Shortly after arriving, LaMont spoke with Cal Fire chiefs about how Deerfoot Lane was in the path of the fire and discussed the needed resources to best protect that location. LaMont then joined with unified command.
“CHP worked immediately to close the roads to Idyllwild,” added Weiser. “They blocked the road at the Cranston Station, Banning and Garner Valley. They had hard closures to not allow any traffic coming up.”
Meyer added, “All the 911 calls, or the majority, were going into our dispatch center and were then routed to fire or sheriff. Our dispatch was getting a lot of information.”
At what point did they decide they had to evacuate town?
Weiser stated that the Pine Cove evacuation was the second day. “Matt Ahearn was operations that day and he made the call to evacuate [Pine Cove]. He felt the fire conditions were such that Pine Cove could be threatened, and as operations, he made that call and the rest of Idyllwild [on day two] and Pine Cove were evacuated.
“The fire did get very active around Mountain Center and, I think, because of that activity, the fire chief — that is his job when you are assigned that — is to make those decisions to do that,” Weiser explained.
“The fire was up on the South Ridge and we were concerned about it coming back down around the back side towards Pine Cove,” added Diaz. The thought, at the time with the wind conditions, was that the fire would move in that direction.
“The machine went into motion and the evacuations happened,” said Weiser.
LaMont added to the discussion: “There were several strategic evacuations between what happened first out on Double View all the way to the second day into Pine Cove and I was working with Bill [Weiser] quite a bit.
“We worked together out of our tactical worksheets, identifying which zones needed to be evacuated along the way so we didn’t have a massive evacuation at one time.” There were several evacuations made throughout the first operational period and into the second day.
Burden gave the sheriff perspective: “We learn from every single fire up on this mountain. So that expertise and those after-actions are shared.” Each agency works to improve.
“That’s an important message,” Burden emphasized. “When we tell you to leave, this isn’t a game. We are not second guessing ourselves. We are saying this is a probability of going this way. If we can’t save structures, we are at least saving people.”
Watch for the third part of this series in the coming weeks.