Forest Fires in the deserts of SoCal


KURT MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER. An air tanker battling the Mountain Fire burning near Mountain Center makes a fire retardant drop on Tuesday afternoon, July 16, 2013.
My youngest son lives in a small desert community near Palm Springs. He says the skies there are currently filled with so much smoke that the sun looks like a “street lamp” and his swimming pool is becoming covered with ash. Here is the link: et/hemet-headlines-index/20130716-mountain-center-mountain-fire-burns-8000-acres-no-end-in-sight.ece
Here is the opening text to a comprehensive reporting of the fire:
July 16, 2013; 07:52 AM

No end is in sight for the wildfire that has blackened more than 12.5 square miles of trees and brush in the San Jacinto Mountains, where steep and inaccessible terrain is hampering firefighters and billowing smoke is hindering air tanker pilots.

At least a couple of burned homes have been spotted, but fire officials have not released a comprehensive tally of the damage in the sparsely settled region. The fire remains 10 percent contained.

The fire has forced residents of about 50 homes to evacuate, along with several hundred children from summer camps, a pet sanctuary and a Zen center.

The fire, which started Monday afternoon near Mountain Center, was burning aggressively through the timber and chapparal on Tuesday. For much of the day, wind was pushing the fire east toward Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs, U.S. Forest Service John Miller said. 

That prompted an evacuation order for 24 homes in the Andreas Canyon Club, a cluster of 1920s houses on the east side of the mountains. Miller said a strike team of engines was stationed near the homes, which Palm Springs firefighters believed were mostly unoccupied.

Miller said the fire had burned onto the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians said it was helping assess the fire threat to the reservation and the Canyons recreation area, which it manages.



13 thoughts on “Forest Fires in the deserts of SoCal”

  1. I worked in this area back in 2002, salvaging a previous wildfire. I also worked there in 2004, selecting trees in recreation sites to be sprayed for bark beetles. There is a LOT of brush in this country, with more timber, including Coulter pines, up a little higher. The town of Idyllwild was severely impacted by bark beetles but, they somehow found a way to cut and remove the many thousands of dead trees. In many areas, the dead trees weren’t harvested, and have fallen over, covered by thick “old growth” manzanita and other types of iconic LA Basin brush types. A late 90’s fire burned right up to the edge of the summer cabin town of Idyllwild, and it took an amazing effort to stop the fire burning out of the canyon right at the houses. Here is the Google Maps view of the area:,-116.709824&spn=0.030528,0.066047&t=h&z=15

    My logger did an excellent job in the area south of Highway 74, down to Lake Hemet. You can’t even see that the area was logged. The nearest lumber mill is 6 hours away, one way, if there isn’t any traffic.

  2. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in this exact part of southern California the past few years and have hiked all through these hills and mountains. In fact, we rent out a place that’s within view (and less than a mile) from the Andreas Canyon Club mentioned in the article.

    Here are a few observations:

    According to Inciweb:

    Equipment on-Scene:

    2241 firefighters, including 98 engines, 15 helicopters, 10 fixed wing aircraft, including a DC-10, 73 hand-crews, 6 water-tenders, and 10 dozers.

    That sounds like a very expensive operation, so perhaps Larry H will offer us his running total of the money spent on this fire.

    Current weather conditions are 99 degrees and 10% humidity, which is actually a little on the coolish, comfortable side for this time of the year in that area.

    Today, in the Palm Springs newspaper, the Palm Springs fire chief had this to say:

    “I don’t want to send people into a panic, because we are not in a panic,” he said. “The fire is a slow-moving fire because it’s burning downhill at this time. While it’s putting off a lot of smoke, it’s not an immediate threat to Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley.”

    According to the article Bob Z posted above:

    “That prompted an evacuation order for 24 homes in the Andreas Canyon Club, a cluster of 1920s houses on the east side of the mountains. Miller said a strike team of engines was stationed near the homes, which Palm Springs firefighters believed were mostly unoccupied.”

    Here’s a picture of the “houses” that are part of the Andreas Canyon Club. The picture also illustrates the type of vegetation and terrain the fire is now burning towards, as it heads east out of the high mountain, forested peaks above Palm Springs. Here’s some more information about the Andreas Canyon Club:

    Originally [in the 1920’s] an exclusive private club on 1,100 acres around and in spectacular Andreas Canyon, the Andreas Canyon Club was limited to 25 members who according the the venerable Harry Carr were, “a group of old Californians who have rescued this canyon from the tenderfeet who have made a mess and a hodgepodge of the rest.”

    Certainly the Andreas Canyon Club structures have some historical value, but “houses” in the traditional sense they are not. Even the Palm Springs firefighters believed these “houses” “were mostly unoccupied.” Yet, that didn’t prevent a “strike team of engines” from being station near the “homes.” Sounds expensive, doesn’t it?

    • “Slow moving fire”? According to the NIFC site report, this fire burned 6600 acres in the last 24 hours. Total costs, reported so far, are at 4 million. There are 19 structures lost but, it doesn’t specify what kinds. The equipment report is correct, and I fully expect that the $4 million figure is under-reported. I would not characterize the terrains as “hills”. Some of that terrain is the steepest in all of California, with a HUGE vertical drop from Mt San Jacinto, down to Palm Springs. Your weather conditions seem taken from Palm Springs, instead of the Idyllwild area, at higher elevation. A shift in winds could easily allow the fire to access more heavy fuels, with ample dead and down logs from 10 years ago. Those areas have very limited access, lying between Idyllwild and Palm Springs. That is why they have so many handcrews. The danger factor should not be understated, as winds can shift back and forth from onshore breezes, to dry Santa Ana winds. With nothing else going on in SoCal, I’d expect that they are “rolling the world” on this incident.

  3. It’s unfortunate, now that entire communities of Idyllwild and other towns are being evacuated. 4000 homes and 100 businesses, just in Idyllwild, alone. (Look at the aerial photo link, posted above) There is a good-sized ridge between the fire and town but, it looks to be too steep and “fuelsy” to be defended. It all depends on which way the winds will push the fire. Several District Rangers have bailed on this Ranger District, not wanting to be blamed for the town’s demise. In some ways, it is inevitable, unless massive fuels projects are enabled. Yes, some treatments were accomplished but, there is no way for them to be adequate. The town, itself, did well to get their dead trees cleaned up, in the last ten years. We’ll see if massive firefighting power will be enough to blunt the progress of the fire, even with the Arizona incident still fresh in our minds.

  4. Looking at the latest map of this fire, the fire has now slopped over the ridge separating Idyllwild from the fire. The latest weather map shows a high pressure system pushing in from the east, opening the possibility of hot winds coming in from the east, as well as thunderstorm potential. An east wind would probably spell disaster for the town, as it would be too dangerous to put personnel in front of such a situation. Most of the fuels treatments were installed to protect against fires coming up the canyons near Hemet.

    Here is the aerial view of the unbroken swath of fuels between the fire and town.,-116.689589&spn=0.007627,0.016512&t=h&z=17

    Some are looking at slightly higher humidities arriving from the east but, any amount of east winds will cause the fire to rage down that canyon. If you zoom in, all the way, you can see ample large snags populating the area. You cannot see all of the snags that have already fallen over, in the last ten years.

    Will THIS be the fire that convinces people of the need for more active forest management???!!?? Will homeowners be blamed for living where they live??? Will home construction be blamed for 1000’s of homes burned, in front of a wall of fire???

    Ed is right about fire insurance carriers. The current situation is in need of drastic change, on many different fronts.

  5. According to today’s Palm Springs newspaper, the 27,500 acre Mountain Fire (which has cost taxpayers over $21.6 million and commanded the attention of over 3,000 firefighters at one time) was “human caused.” Apparently, yellow tape reading “fire origin” is posted near two trees, where the night before the wildfire erupted a neighbor says there were sounds of a party on the property. Perhaps they were listening to Talking Heads…”Burning down the house.”

    • Another cost of preservationism and “whatever happens”!! Preservationists can now rejoice and be comforted that those ample fuels surrounding Idyllwild remain in place, awaiting the next ignition source, “whatever” that might be!!!

      • Amazing perspective Larry. However, seems like this is another cost of “partying,” not “preservationism” (whatever that even is).

        • Does the ignition source REALLY matter, in the real world of these forests? The preservation of the ample fuels assures us that any ignition could mean burning the whole town down. They had their chance to manage their fuels but, it didn’t happen, for many reasons. Now, they have to live with that decision of “whatever happens”. It has been more than 10 years since that decision was made, and the fuels aren’t going anywhere, until they burn up in a future wildfire. Again, this is the “whatever happens” strategy, and there are many millions of potential ignition sources living in the LA Basin.

        • Matt: Remember the old “fire triangle?” 1) Fuel, 2) Slope, and 3) Weather. All that is missing is Ignition — which can come from anywhere: e.g., fireworks, arson, lightning, car exhaust, etc. Of course, far more fires are started by people than lightning, therefore making people the more likely cause of most fires. Which is borne out by history. The problem is the fuel load (and topography), not the party people.

    • As per NBC-LA: “MOUNTAIN FIRE CAUSE: The still-burning wildfire was sparked by failed electrical equipment on private property, officials say.” If fuels had been reduced, they might have caught the fire before it reached heavier fuels and steeper ground. Fuelbreaks do work in BOTH directions!!


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