Special Report: Idyllwild fire department response to Mountain Fire was delayed

Idyllwild fire department response to Mountain Fire was delayed

IDYLLWILD, Calif. - It's been eight months since the Mountain Fire ripped through the San Jacinto mountains destroying everything in its path.  The town of Idyllwild is still trying to recover.  Though the fire did not touch the mountain city, it came close, even forcing an evacuation.  Even though the Idyllwild fire department was the closest station to where the fire broke out, records show it was not the first one dispatched. 

On July 15, 2013, a massive dispatch of Cal Fire resources was called out.  Engines, air craft and firefighters from all over the area were called to the intersection of HIghway 243 and HIghway 74 in Mountain Center.  A brush fire had broken out in the San Bernardino mountain, a fire that would later be called the Mountain Fire.  Fueled by extremely dry and windy conditions, the fire scorched more than 27,000 acres, destroying 23 buildings, including 7 homes.  "My daughter's house, did you see that one down there? There is no house left down there," said one victim of the fire. 

Flames climbed the rocky terrain of the San Jacinto mountains.  On the other side, dark smoke columns filled the sky over Idyllwild.  As the threat grew and the fire crept towards the ridge, Cal Fire ordered people in the small town to evacuate. "If the wind changes and the ash gets worse, it may be time to go," said one Idyllwild resident.  "I'm ready to go at a moment's notice." 

The Forest Service estimates it cost $25.8 million to contain the 15-day fire.  More than 3,500 firefighters stood on the front lines at the fire's peak.  But, one department believes it should have been there sooner. "We weren't brought into the situation as rapidly as we should've been," said Idyllwild fire chief Patrick Reitz.  "And it could've been a greater threat to our community."

In the aftermath of the fire journalist Guy McCarthy received a tip about the delayed dispatch of the Idyllwild fire department. "Clearly a concern to some individuals, and I feel like if this is true, then the public deserves to know about it," said McCarthy.  

McCarthy made a public records request for a report of the first day at the Mountain incident. It shows the first Cal Fire engine getting called at 1:46 PM.  Idyllwild was called at 2:03PM, 17 minutes later. "I won't say it was a mistake, I think our dispatchers were following their protocols at that time," said Cal Fire Riverside Chief John Hawkins. 

Chief Reitz says his firefighters could only wait and watch as engines from neighboring cities drove through Idyllwild en route to the scene. "If we weren't going to be requested we were going to automatically dispatch which is not something that we, or any agency wants to do,' said Reitz. 

Despite being the closest engine to the fire, Chief Hawkins says Reitz' primary focus should be protecting his community.  "But who's going to back fill the city? Who's going to backfill, who's going to respond to the town, who's going to pick up the call." 

Firefighters say the origin of the Mountain Fire was just 4.3 miles away.  The next closest station is 7 miles away. "To abate it using other resources that aren't the closest to me is very disconcerting," said Chief Reitz.  

But perhaps on paper it makes sense. On May 23, 2000, Cal Fire and the Idyllwild Fire entered into an automatic aid agreement.  It spells out how the county might call on Idyllwild fire and vice versa.  "Basically, this agreement's been in service since 2000 but it hasn't been operational for many years, and it should be operational," said Chief Hawkins.  

"Those documents don't exist, they've not been in place. Why that is, I can't explain," said Chief Reitz. 

Both chiefs say the outdated agreement lacks a plan and a map which caused the breakdown during the Mountain fire.  The origin of the fire did not fall within Idyllwild's jurisdiction.  McCarthy brought light to the issue in his article.  "As uncomfortable as it might be to point this out, that's part of my duties as a journalist," said McCarthy.  "it's about accountability." 

With the delay and its reason out in the open, the next question is: if Idyllwild got dispatched sooner, would it have made a difference?  Would it have stopped the flames from spreading as quickly?  Would it have stopped an evacuation turning the mountain town into a ghost town? ""That's a difficult question to answer. I would go the other way and say it wouldn't have hurt," said Chief Reitz.  

While it's impossible to speculate the impact if Idyllwild fire got the call earlier, Chief Hawkins know how things will change in the future. "We would do it differently, we'll dispatch them directly and we'll follow the operating plan, we think that's what we need to do," said Hawkins.  

A plan chief Hawkins already sent to chief Reitz for approval so this doesn't happen again. "Trying to keep focus, not on what happened, but how do move forward from this and how do make it better," said Reitz. 

While moving forward, what happened in the first crucial minutes of the Mountain fire remains unresolved. "I really look forward to hearing those bad feelings," said Hawkins.  "Because i'm still waiting for the operating plan to come back and I look forward to him actually coming to me." 

Chief Hawkins told us he sent the first draft of the new operating plan and map to Chief Reitz for review. Reitz has not returned it yet. Meanwhile, businesses in Idyllwild continue to recover from the scare of the Mountain fire.  Some still wondering, what if? 

Related Information:  Read McCarthy's full report

comments powered by Disqus

Photo Galleries