In Idyllwild, controversy crackles over fire department

Steve Kunkle gunned his cluttered pickup truck up the hill, toward the peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains, toward Tahquitz Rock, the granite monolith that looms over Idyllwild a mile above the valley floor.

Kunkle, Idyllwild's barrel-chested fire chief, pulled up to a tiny cottage and hopped out of the truck, his eyes dancing across the yard, his boots sinking into a thick carpet of brown pine needles. "It's been a long time since anybody's loved this place," he said.

It was a sight that makes wilderness firefighters shudder -- waist-high brown weeds, dead tree branches over the chimney. For several years now, Idyllwild has been on an "abatement" kick to protect homes from forest fires and, conversely, to protect the forest from structure fires. The cottage was a reminder that there is still work ahead, and Kunkle would need to have a serious talk with the owner.

For now, though, there was no one home. Perhaps that was for the best, because these days, being a firefighter here is a delicate matter -- "like the old Frankenstein movies," said Capt. Jim Manietta, "where the town is approaching with pitchforks."

Criticism of the department has been building for months, and by now, some in town say their firehouse has degenerated into more of an uncurbed fiefdom than a professional department.

Fire officials have been accused, at one time or another, of throwing a trash can at a moving vehicle during a fire call, stealing department records and haranguing a school principal until she moved off the mountain -- because, she says, she dared question them.

This summer, a Riverside County grand jury suggested that the critics weren't far off. The grand jury even raised the possibility -- a heretical notion, historically -- that Idyllwild cede local control and allow its department to be absorbed into the network of county, state and federal stations that protects the rest of the mountain region.

The department describes itself as the aggrieved party, the victim of a smear campaign by a handful of cranky people, particularly don't-tread-on-me mountain types who don't like to be told that they need to pick up their pine needles.

"A very small amount of people are making a big noise," said Paul Riggi, a retired firefighter and a member of the department commission. The commissioners operate as a board of directors; they have been accused of violating open-government standards and have failed to approve a budget this year.

"We're not perfect," Riggi said. "But the public loves us. All of this is stupid."

The conflict might be dismissed as harmless, provincial politics, considering that the department covers five square miles and has an annual budget -- when there is a budget -- of roughly $1.7 million. But on "the hill," as the locals say, there is a catch: Idyllwild is terribly vulnerable to fire.

The town rests in a dry forest peppered with chaparral and oily manzanita trees, not to mention thousands of trees killed by bark beetles, though officials have removed many of those. Authorities have said that under the worst conditions, the town could go up in two hours. Many residents keep "go boxes" of food, belongings and documents they could grab as they fled.

Time and again, Idyllwild has been spared, but someday luck will run out, so the town's identity is forged in the integrity of its fire protection.

The ups and downs of Idyllwild, once little more than a sawmill, can be marked by advances in fire protection and by fires -- the construction of the area's first fire lookout tower in 1914; the loss of the Idyllwild Inn to the flames in 1940.

After World War II, the area population had stalled at 450; businesses had gone belly-up and real estate was a bust. Then, in 1946, taxpayers created the Idyllwild Fire Protection District. Not coincidentally, many believe, a "golden age" began.

Today, there are 3,500 full-time residents, 10,000 more on busy weekends, a thriving artist community and a commercial core where you can dine on bacon-wrapped sea scallops and buy aroma-therapy bath crystals.

Over the years, however, murmurs began percolating: Firefighters, the unassailable heroes of Idyllwild, seemed to be running the place.

"They became macho. Cliquish," said Marge Muir, 76, a Realtor and a former volunteer firefighter who is among those pushing for the department to be folded into other agencies. "But this is a funny town. No one would confront them."

Then, one morning in 2006, a 6-year-old girl at Idyllwild School developed a 103-degree fever. When school officials could not find her parents, the district nurse told them to call 911. Idyllwild firefighters arrived -- they operate the ambulance service -- but refused to transport the girl to a hospital.

Riggi explained the rationale: "Let's say somebody up the street has a heart attack. Where's our guys? Down that stupid hill with an unnecessary transport."

The girl recovered, but Principal Emily Shaw was incensed. Friends urged her to run for the commission. She won, but it came with a price.

Someone from the department called to complain that she wasn't cooperating with fire inspections -- wholly untrue, she said. The department challenged her residency status; she had been living locally in a trailer, but owned a home elsewhere. Within months, she quit the commission, accepting a position at a new school.

"They bullied me to leave the mountain," said Shaw, 35. "It was not worth my health or my safety to stay."

Fire officials say they raised legitimate concerns about residency but did nothing untoward. The floodgates, however, opened. Complaints about the department found their way to the grand jury, which delivered its rebuke in June.

Among other things, the jury found that the department and commission "have attempted various forms of intimidation," conducted unauthorized burns and improperly discussed the fire chief's salary in secret.

Concerns about perceived arrogance were not alleviated when fire officials said, in effect, that they would ignore many of the grand jury's recommendations. "Are they experts?" Kunkle, the fire chief, said. "I don't think so."

The department, meanwhile, approved tough rules requiring homeowners to fire-safe their property. Without soliciting bids, the department hired a San Diego County company to conduct "forced abatements" -- going onto private property when homeowners refuse to make improvements.

Residents learned that the firm could put a tax lien on those houses and that a court could, in theory, force the sale of a house to cover the lien. It did not help that the company sent every homeowner a confusing letter suggesting, falsely, that they were all in violation.

"What the hell is this?" resident Ben Killingsworth said when he opened the letter. And he's a fire commissioner.

"There was a communication problem," said Killingsworth, a retired California Highway Patrol commander who replaced Shaw on the commission. "That was what got the vast majority of the people upset."

Michael Esnard, president of the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council, which provides grants to assist in fire protection, said the company "butchered" some properties, in one case needlessly mowing down a row of trees that shielded a home from the road. "People began to treat them as foreign invaders," he said.

Shirl Papaian, regional manager of El Cajon-based Fire Prevention Services Inc., said only a "very small percentage" of Idyllwild homeowners are unhappy with the program. Because of the extensive abatement campaign, the town has never been more fire-safe, she said. And fire officials say their five-year contract with the company costs the department nothing because the company earns its profits through direct billing and abatement liens.

"The only people who are generally against the programs are the ones who are not compliant," Papaian said. "If you want to put us out of business, clear your property. If everybody cleared their property, we wouldn't have anything to do."

Still, by now it feels as if half the town is breathing down the department's neck. That's how it was revealed, recently, that the commission hadn't gotten around to passing a budget.

"We have a budget," Riggi said. "It just hasn't been approved."

"How can they function without a budget?" scoffed Louis C. Padula, 66, a retired educator and a member of a local water district's board. "I don't know about you, but my wife approves our budget and I stick to it. And I've been married 46 years."

Kunkle, a 35-year firefighter, seems flabbergasted by the whole brouhaha. "I have never seen anything like this," he said.

Muir said it's not all that complicated. In a tiny town, she said, people often overlook the quirks and mistakes that come when locals run rural agencies with little training or resources. A few years back, she said, one of the water districts flat-out forgot to hold elections. No one much cared. This, she said, is different.

Scott Gold is a Times staff writer.