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Records Show Idyllwild Response to $25M Mountain Fire was Delayed

Idyllwild Station 621 is about 4.3 miles from where the July 2013 Mountain Fire crossed Highway 243. More than 25 units, including engines, tanker planes and a helicopter, were dispatched before Idyllwild Brush 621 got called to respond.

Records Show Idyllwild Response to $25M Mountain Fire was Delayed
During the region's driest year on record, an aid agreement between Cal Fire-Riverside County and Idyllwild Fire Protection District was overlooked in initial dispatches to the 2013 Mountain Fire, delaying response by firefighters at one of the stations closest to the point of origin, a Patch investigation shows.

The Mountain Fire that broke out July 15 near the junction of Highways 243 and 74 scorched more than 43 square miles, destroyed 23 structures, including seven homes, and forced evacuation of Idyllwild. Costs of fighting the fire exceeded $25 million, according to the Forest Service.

Records requests and interviews by Banning-Beaumont Patch beginning in August, before the destructive Silver Fire broke out near Poppet Flats, show that inside the first 20 minutes of the Mountain Fire, Cal Fire-Riverside County and the Forest Service dispatched more than 25 units, including engines, tanker planes and a helicopter, before Idyllwild Brush 621 got called to respond.

The nearest fire station to the point of origin for the Mountain Fire, west of the 243, was USFS Keenwild Station-Heliport, on the east side of the 243.

The next nearest station to the point of origin was Station 621 in Idyllwild, about 4.3 miles from Keenwild. In spite of an existing Automatic Aid Agreement between the County of Riverside and Idyllwild Fire Protection District that dates to May 2000, engines from Pine Cove, Garner Valley, Anza and Valle Vista in Hemet were among those dispatched before Brush 621.

A Cal Fire Interagency Report of Incident and Dispatch Action has more than nine pages of entries before any mention of Brush 621, which was dispatched at 2:03 p.m. July 15, twenty-one minutes after the Mountain Fire was first reported.

Idyllwild Fire Protection District personnel are also concerned their two water tenders were not called out during initial dispatches for the Mountain Fire. The tenders can bring 1,800 gallons and 1,700 gallons to any fire where hydrants or water pressure are an issue.

There is no way of knowing if one brush engine and a pair of water trucks responding from less than five miles away would have made a difference in the first hour of a fire that overwhelmed multiple crews on scene.

Winds out of the west that day pushed the Mountain Fire rapidly east across Highway 243, through developed land that included the Keenwild Station property, and into dense chaparral more than 10 feet high in places. The fire raced toward Apple Canyon Road, where several homes burned overnight, continued burning in the San Jacinto Mountains for two weeks, and smoldered in wilderness areas into August.

'We're Not Perfect'

Cal Fire officials have acknowledged the dispatch delay for Idyllwild in July, and they've indicated in interviews their relationship with Idyllwild Fire Protection District needs work.

"We're not perfect," Cal Fire-Riverside County Fire Chief John R. Hawkins told Patch in November in Beaumont. "We are working on updating the mutual aid agreement."

Hawkins and Cal Fire Division Chief Kevin Gaines also initially phrased the dispatch of Idyllwild Brush 621 in positive terms: "We did send them. And look how soon we did send them."

Asked for an update last week on any revised aid agreement for Riverside County, Hawkins checked with other Cal Fire administrators and replied:

Mutual-aid continues to exist and existed with the Idyllwild Fire Protection District (IFPD) before and after the Mountain and Silver Fires. During the Fall 2013, IFPD Fire Chief Reitz and Chief Hawkins met to discuss interagency operations. They agreed the #1 priority would be to activate an effective automatic aid agreement. An Operating Plan is needed to specify who, what, where and how reciprocal response should occur. Chief Hawkins developed a draft Auto Aid Operating Plan and sent it to Chief Reitz during the first week of December 2013. On January 6, Chief Reitz advised that he would be reviewing the draft Auto Aid Operating Plan with his officers. CAL FIRE Riverside and Riverside County eagerly await the IFPD review so the agreement can be enacted.

An Automatic Aid Agreement between Riverside County and Idyllwild, dated May 23, 2000 and released by Cal Fire in September, states in part:

"Both the County of Riverside and the Idyllwild Fire Protection District . . . desire that in some circumstances the Idyllwild Fire Protection District will respond to fire and emergency medical/rescue incidents outside of the corporate boundaries of the Idyllwild Fire Protection District . . . " and vice versa.

"These services shall be detailed in an Operating Plan which the Fire Chiefs shall develop and annually review. . . . It is understood that all plans, which deal with emergency response, shall adhere as closely as practical to the 'closest unit' concept which forms the basis for this agreement. . . .

"Each agency may, upon its own initiative, go upon land which is in the boundaries of the other agency to engage in fire suppression work without prior authorization . . .

"When an emergency incident occurs along the border between protection jurisdictions, it is agreed that under no circumstances should there be any delay in response pending determination of the precise location. It shall be agreed policy that both agencies shall send forces promptly to start appropriate action on borderline incidents."

Cal Fire's contractual relationship with Riverside County dates back to 1921, and the Cal Fire-Riverside County Fire Department was formed in 1946, according to a department history.

'Breakdown on the Automatic Aid Agreement'

Chief Patrick Reitz of the Idyllwild Fire Protection District referred to the existing automatic aid agreement in a recent interview.

"There's a master mutual aid agreement which has been in place a long time here," Reitz said. "And then there's an automatic aid agreement which has also been in place for a long time here. I believe the document that I saw was signed back in 2001.

"But it's been the last two or three years that there appears to be a breakdown in that automatic aid agreement to where the operating plan and the map have been called into question by county fire, and have not been utilized in that period of time. What happened I do not know."

Reitz said he became Idyllwild's fire chief in August 2012.

"Chief Hawkins and I are now working to address the operating plan and the operating map of the automatic aid agreement," Reitz said.

"Regardless of that, the automatic aid agreement was in place, the master mutual aid agreement was in place. Why it took as long as it did to be called to the Mountain Fire is beyond me.

"Chief Hawkins and I have not discussed the specifics of the Mountain Fire incident," Reitz said. "We have not talked about . . . the Mountain Fire or the Silver Fire . . . or even the Strong Fire as far as the fires this past year.

"The fires up here that we have been close enough . . . there's been a number of fires, and automatic aid was not utilized for those with Idyllwild Fire.

"We're trying to operate on a go forward basis so it doesn't happen again," Reitz said.

"I don't think it was handled appropriately," Reitz said of the dispatch delay for Idyllwild on the Mountain Fire. "I think it definitely needs to be reviewed at the county level, and reviewed as to how the dispatch was using its resources when we were sitting here as the closest available engine company."

Other engine crews dispatched before Idyllwild "actually had to drive through our district to get to the fire," Reitz said. "When you are sending resources through a jurisdiction to get to the fire without calling the jurisdiction that you're driving through, that raises questions."

Asked for distances of fire resources called to the Mountain Fire before Idyllwild Fire Protection District, Capt. Mark LaMont of Idyllwild provided the following estimates:

  • Pine Cove Station 23 - 7.5 miles to Keenwild
  • USFS Alandale Station - 9.1 miles
  • USFS Cranston Station 54 - 12.1 miles
  • USFS Kenworthy Station 52 in Garner Valley - 13.1 miles
  • Vista Grande Hot Shots Station - 17 miles
  • Poppet Flats 63 station - 20.5 miles

'Silver Fire Cause Still Under Investigation'

Idyllwild Fire Protection District personnel were not closest to the point of origin for the Silver Fire in August.

The after action report for the Silver Fire, which broke out Aug. 7 near Poppet Flats, was released in September by Cal Fire's chief counsel in response to a records request by Banning-Beaumont Patch.

"The fire presented significant challenges and quickly overwhelmed initial attack resources," the report compiled by Cal Fire Incident Management Team 6 states. "The fire burned rapidly through the affected communities, all while evacuations were occurring.

"This fire presented a significant and very real threat to lives and property. Firefighters responded to 37 reports of fire impinging on occupied structures," the Cal Fire report states. "Numerous rescues were performed and many civilians were evacuated under extreme fire conditions by firefighters and Deputies from the Riverside County Sheriff's Department."

The Silver Fire destroyed 48 structures including 26 homes, scorched more than 31 square miles, resulted in 12 firefighter injuries, and severely burned one civilian, according to Cal Fire.

The last Cal Fire update for the estimated cost of fighting the Silver Fire and ensuring it was completely out was calculated at $11.2 million on Aug. 18, according to the after action report.

Asked last week about the cause of the Silver Fire, Hawkins and other Cal Fire administrators responded Jan. 8:

CAL FIRE/Riverside County Fire Investigators are still actively seeking information as to the Silver Fire cause. As such, the fire cause is still under investigation and not open to discussion.

The Mountain Fire and the Silver Fire were two of the costliest blazes in Southern California during the 2013 fire season.

For background see:

MOUNTAIN FIRE UPDATE: 4,100 Homes Threatened, Evac Orders for Idyllwild

SILVER FIRE: Initial Attack Overwhelmed, After Action Report Offers Details, Cause Still Under Wraps

How Dry was 2013? Cities of Riverside and L.A. Had Driest Calendar Years on Record

About this report: Banning-Beaumont Patch requested dispatch logs and dispatch audio recordings from Cal Fire for the Mountain Fire in early August 2013. Further requests were made in September for the current Automatic Aid Agreement for Mountain Battalion in Riverside County, and any after action reports completed for the Mountain Fire and Silver Fire.

To view 37 pages of CAD Log and Notes released to Patch from the Mountain Fire, July 15, 2013,  click here.

To view the 5-page Automatic Aid Agreement for Mountain Battalion in Riverside County released to Patch click here.

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