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Idyllwild fire planning not idyllic

Riven by politics and a lack of communication, the mountain town and its surrounding summer camps lack a unified evacuation procedure.

July 30, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Regarding evacuation plans for a catastrophic fire, residents of the isolated, mile-high community of Idyllwild have always offered a confident answer: We're prepared.

But only weeks away from the peak of fire season, local factions are struggling to resolve what many describe as a communication breakdown over how best to coordinate disparate evacuation plans that have been drafted by at least 12 mountain camps that cater to thousands of youths, several town organizations and fire authorities.

This fire season is especially worrisome in the San Jacinto Mountain town southwest of Palm Springs, where the hottest and driest summer on record has evaporated creeks and meadows. Driveways and streets are tinted yellow with pollen that rain normally would have washed away. Incense cedars are dropping needles and turning brown earlier than ever -- they usually do so in the fall -- in forests already destroyed by bark beetles.

Idyllwild Fire Chief Steve Kunkel blamed the communication problem on "small-town politics" in an unincorporated rural community of about 3,500 residents that lacks a central organizing authority. The community is a collection of fiefdoms -- the camps, community organizations, nonprofit groups, businesses, water districts and various government agencies.

"That's the price you pay for living out in the weeds," Kunkel said. "But it's also true that we test our plan regularly, and I am confident the kids are safe here and we -- the Idyllwild Fire Department, Cal Fire, the California Highway Patrol, the U.S. Forest Service, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department -- are going to get them off the mountain safely if needed."

Kunkel declined to disclose details about the official master plan, except to say that it was based on a variety of fire scenarios and that it identified staging areas for firefighters, equipment and safety zones, and escape routes for evacuees.

"In the event of an emergency, we don't want people trying to second-guess our strategies, so we're keeping the plan under wraps," he said. "In the meantime, we have some people in town being alarmists and making more out of the fire hazard situation than it is, or trying to be a bigger part of something than they are, or even need to be."

It is not unusual for fire authorities to keep evacuation plans private, as residents could try to circumvent them during an emergency, fire authorities said. Or given the random and dangerous nature of fires, evacuation plans must be kept flexible, they said, or residents could be caught off guard if some details suddenly change.

During a brush fire, residents, including the people at the camps, should obey the directions of local, state or federal fire authorities, officials said.

Kunkel said local civilian groups and camp operators must better coordinate their emergency plans and lines of communication.

The multi-agency Mountain Area Task Force hopes to resolve potential conflicts and has invited representatives of the camps and groups to a meeting at Idyllwild Fire Department headquarters Wednesday.

"We've identified this as a problem; we need to get everyone on the same page," said Capt. Julie Hutchinson, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) in Riverside County. "We want to get everyone back to the table and talking."

Fire authorities also hope to collect information.

"We don't know how exactly many children are up there," said Gina Moran-McGough, emergency services coordinator for the Riverside County Office of Emergency Services. Emergency workers expect that one of the first questions to be asked is this: What's your capacity and how many kids do you have right now?

Currently, "it's every camp for itself," as one resident said, with each relying on its own evacuation plan that was designed to meet the needs of its location and clientele. No two camp evacuation plans are alike, fire authorities said, and some are better than others.

A least two of the largest camps can afford to purchase fire retardant. Others have buses on hand. or depend on parent chaperons and camp staff vehicles. And some have volunteer firefighters on staff.

At Astro Camp, a science education center on the southern edge of Idyllwild, the plan is to load about 160 youths into vehicles including, if available, donated Hemet Unified School District buses, and then head down the mountain in the direction advised by authorities.

If there is no time to evacuate, camp director Allan Tiso said, staffers would spray the Astro Camp gymnasium and dining hall with a special fire retardant gel, then herd the youths inside buildings that are stocked with emergency supplies.

As for what he called the "big picture plan for the entire mountain" that is being developed by volunteer safety groups in Idyllwild, he said, "We're going to go with our plan, no matter what.

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