Idyllwild, Ripe for Flames, Wonders Why It's Standing

Times Staff Writer

Few things jangle the nerves more quickly in this quiet mountain town than the blare of fire engines.

Noses immediately sniff the air, eyes watch the woods, and ears perk up for news of "The Big One."

For Annamarie Padula, it means running to the deck and scanning the horizon.

"You hear the engines and you go looking for the flames," she said.

With a forest full of dead trees, just two main roads in and out and a lingering drought, the threat of a cataclysmic fire looms large in the public mind here. Vigilant locals are known to chase down those flicking cigarette butts from car windows.

"If you set off a firecracker, you'd probably be lynched," said longtime resident Janice Fast.

Plans, evacuation routes and drills are run again and again, as fire agencies think up every possible contingency. Some officials say an out-of-control fire, such as those that swept Southern California in 2003, could incinerate the town in as little as two hours.

Yet for the last 100 years, this mile-high bastion of artists and free thinkers nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains southwest of Palm Springs has managed to escape such an apocalyptic fate.

"It's either luck or the grace of God," said Kevin Turner, pre-fire management division chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Riverside County Fire Department. "Back when the 2003 fires were going, we were at high risk. It could have been us easily. It was just luck of the draw. The nightmare would be one big fire encircling the community."

Or one blocking Highways 243 and 74, the primary routes in and out of town.

"We have an extensive evacuation plan that we work on all the time," said Idyllwild Fire Chief Steve Kunkle. "But access to this community is so limited, to get people up and out would be difficult."

If either of the two-lane highways were blocked by a stalled car or jackknifed truck, he said, hiking out would be nearly impossible.

"It would be like an oven," Kunkle said. "If you take the amount of fuel here and the fact that there are basically only two ways out, I would describe it as an extremely hazardous situation. We have unique challenges because of our location. I don't know if it's the most dangerous, but I don't know of another place in the county like it."

But so far, Idyllwild's location has actually helped it avoid major conflagrations. Scorching Santa Ana winds that can reduce vegetation to tinder are largely deflected by the shape and orientation of the mountains surrounding the city. High levels of precipitation also helped stave off fire. Years ago, a fire chief dubbed this the "asbestos forest" because it so rarely burned.

No one says that anymore. In July 1996, the Bee Canyon fire crept up the mountain toward Idyllwild, leading to a total evacuation. Only a last-minute wind shift spared the town.

The deadly fires of 2003 that missed Idyllwild proved a sobering reminder of just how quickly a community can be destroyed. Bark beetles have killed hundreds of thousands of trees, turning them into enormous matchsticks ready to burn in an instant.

The state forestry department and other agencies estimate that there are now more than a million dead trees in the San Jacinto Mountains alone.

Those figures have changed attitudes here.

"I remember when they cut down the trees over there 25 years ago for the shopping center," said Fast, pointing toward a slice of downtown Idyllwild full of health food stores and restaurants. "The town was in an uproar, I was in an uproar. We were all tree huggers then. Many of us still are -- only we are more realistic now."

Fast, 68, left West Hollywood for Idyllwild more than 30 years ago and has served on the town's various fire prevention boards. Like many here, she has come around to the idea that some of the very trees that attracted her to the town could fuel its demise.

"I now define a tree hugger as someone who doesn't want a tree cut down for any reason at all," she said.

The fire and evacuation of 1996 helped shape those views.

Fast owned a pet boarding and grooming business when she saw the flames coming up the mountain that day. She stayed at the business handing out leashes and pet carriers to anyone who wanted one. She also broke into three houses, with the owners' permission, to rescue dogs inside.

"There was a huge line of people heading down the mountain that day. You were going down with your neighbors not knowing if you would ever see them again," she said. "We looked like the Beverly Hillbillies with all our stuff piled in the back of a truck and 15 dogs."

Most people returned in three or four days when the danger passed.

Fire officials say they have been busy making the town and surrounding communities such as Pine Cove and Mountain Center safer by removing thousands of dead trees throughout the forest, thinning vegetation and pushing hard for absentee owners to clear their property.

Some 50% of homeowners in Idyllwild don't live in town, said Kunkle.

"Many are horrible at clearing their property of dead trees and brush," he said. "We can fine them $250, but some think it's cheaper to pay the fine than clear the land."

Residents say getting rid of a dead tree can cost up to $500, though there are programs that will remove trees cheaply for those who qualify.

Kunkle is hoping to get county permission to go onto uncleared properties, remove hazardous trees and bill the owners.

"Education doesn't work with some of these people, and neither do fines," he said.

Fire may never be far from anyone's mind here, but few in this community of about 3,500 let it rule their lives. It hasn't stopped newcomers from moving to a place offering mountain serenity, endless hiking and a small-town feel.

Over the years, Idyllwild has changed from a weekend getaway for city types to a counterculture haven to a destination for retirees and upscale artists.

Galleries selling delicate blown glass are down the road from yoga studios, diners and stores hawking organic poultry. Homes are perched on the edges of steep cliffs while others hide in the darkness of the forest. Imposing Tahquitz Rock, a 1,000-foot-high sheer block of granite, towers protectively above the rustic downtown.

For many, trading crowded cities, traffic and smog for a more relaxed lifestyle is worth the risk of fire.

"We came up here in 1993 from Corona. My wife and I were backpackers and hikers, and this place appealed to us," said Phil Patrick. "By and large, I don't think fire is a big fear in residents' minds, but you always know it could happen at any time."

Carl Tepel, 64, recently bought a video store in town. In 2003, his home was one of the few spared in a fire that swept the Scripps Ranch area of San Diego.

"We were up here at the time of the fire down there," said Tepel, who has moved permanently to Idyllwild. "The fire risk concerns us but didn't stop us from buying this business or moving up here. I think things are going in the right direction."

Chris Maxson, 64, moved from Hawaii 10 years ago and started the Idyllwild Gallery of Fine Art.

"We found this to be the happiest place we have ever been," she said. "But we don't use barbecues, we don't light candles, we don't set out torches. We don't do anything that we might not be able to control. It is people who don't care that are the problem."

Although fire officials say federal funding for tree removal has been reduced since Hurricane Katrina, they were able to get their money before that disaster. In 2003, Riverside County received more than $30 million, which is being divvied up over three years to cut down dead trees, said Turner of the state forestry department.

By the time the money runs out, he hopes to have mitigated the major problems, leaving only forest maintenance work to do. His agency has cut thousands of dead trees and expects to have removed at least 229,500 trees by the end of next year.

"There is still plenty of fuel up here to cause significant damage, and we could still have a catastrophic fire," he said. "The odds have increased in our favor because of the work we have done. I don't want people to let their guard down, but I don't want them to be paranoid either."

Sitting outside his family's ice cream store, George Kretsinger, 61, takes the long view. His father moved here in 1936, when there were only about 50 families. Kretsinger spent 34 years with the town fire department and is now vice president of the Idyllwild Fire Protection District. If a big fire comes, and he thinks it might, he expects residents to do what they've trained for. Until then, he's not worried.

"We don't let fear of fire rule our lives," he said. "It's like getting cancer. You know it could happen, but you don't sit around all day thinking about it."

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