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

But the mountain retreat doesn't wonder long as it keeps a wary eye out and practices for a tricky evacuation.

July 11, 2006|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

IDYLLWILD — 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.

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