WWPOA Hosts Sheep Fire Debriefing With Fire Agencies

PHOTO: Tracey Martinez, Public Information Officer SBC Fire Protection District

WPOA President John Kozyra introduces the guest panel which included members from Cal Fire, Angeles National Forest, San Bernardino County Fire, and the San Bernardino County Sheriffs Department.

On Thursday, August 11th, the Wrightwood Property Owners Association assembled a debriefing for the Sheep Fire that occurred on the evening of June 11th, 2022. The meeting took place at the Wrightwood Community Building at 7 pm. An estimated 40 people were in attendance, and an additional 30 people tuned in online via Zoom. President of the WWPOA, John Kozyra, stated that the debriefing was to “Make sure people understand the facts. As a community, we are grateful for the fire agency partners and that no structures were burned.” Other members of the WWPOA agreed that a debriefing was essential for members of the community who were still left with questions and speculations as to the cause, oversight, and containment of the Sheep Fire that burned 865 acres. Rita Bemis, a member of the WWPOA, mobilized the panelists, which included members from Cal Fire, Angeles National Forest, San Bernardino County Fire, and the San Bernardino County Sheriffs Department.

Bob Garcia from the Angeles National Forest began the presentation by showing a map of the initial fire attack that occurred on June 11th. Garcia emphasized the robust mutual aid put toward the Sheep Fire, which included an estimated 200 firefighters who responded on the first night, then doubled the next morning to 400 and was up to 700 by the end of day two. Garcia said they were “Thankful to have the resources available at that time, compared to last year.” According to the Cal Fire website, during the summer of 2021, “…the state of California was facing “unprecedented fire conditions.” Chief Shane Littlefield of Cal Fire validated that the response to the Sheep Fire was vigorous due to the unified command with Cal Fire, Angeles National Forest, and San Bernardino County Fire all working together. Littlefield stated, “Multi-agency responses are well coordinated and well thought out.”

Next, Scott Tuttle of the San Bernardino County Fire Department explained the county’s role: to protect our community, homes, and infrastructures. Tuttle disclosed that Engine 14 in Wrightwood was actually in Phelan, responding to a 7-acre fire at the time of the initial fire attack in Wrightwood. The first fire engine to respond to the scene was Engine 79 of Fontana, which was pulled in from the county to cover station 14. Tuttle provided a detailed timeline of their response, stating that the dispatch came in at 6:32 pm on June 11th and had a truck en route in less than 30 seconds. Ten minutes later, the response team reported that a 1/4 acre had burned, growing to four acres in just one hour. There was also a mention that locating the fire was particularly difficult because the dispatch came in as an unknown fire, not a vegetation fire.

While the initial response to the fire was presented as vigorous, it left some of the community wondering why it led to the destruction of hundreds of acres. Michelle Steinmann of Wrightwood asked specifically how the fire jumped the wash and if there was anything that could have been done differently to prevent it. Steinmann’s husband is a developer for the Pacific Crest Estates, and their land located off Wright Mountain Rd. was directly affected by the fire. Steinmann stated, “The wash is the biggest fire clearing, and I’m puzzled as to how the fire could have spread.” The panel unanimously agreed that fires are unpredictable, and the weather is ultimately the driving force. Chief Littlefield explained the complexities of vegetation fires and how flammable piñon junipers can be. As to what could have been done differently, Littlefield stated, “The response [to the fire] was appropriate and, in my opinion, over-exaggerated.” Ben Smith of the Wrightwood Fire Safe Council also mentioned that a major thing the community can do to prevent the spread of fires is to manage defendable space. This includes clearing weeds, picking up pine needles, and managing trees on your property. Smith stated, “Do your part as well. Don’t leave it all up to these guys […] It’s not just this group; it’s up to the town.”

The total cost for the Sheep Fire was 11 million dollars, including everything from food and water for the firefighters to aircraft contracts. Federal funds are covering a significant portion of the cost since the fire burned 790 acres of federal land and 75 acres of private and state land. The cause of the fire is unknown and still under investigation, but now there is a looming concern for restoring the burn area. A participant asked what will be done during the winter to protect the rehabilitation of the burn area on Hwy 2 from being destroyed by snow play activity. Ryan Smith of the SBC Sheriffs Department ensured that they would continue to enforce and issue fines for snow play on the highway. But it is unlikely they can barricade or block people from the burn areas since it is up to the Forest Service or the state to certify a restoration zone.

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