As a historic heat wave bore down on Southern California during the Fourth of July weekend, ominous plumes of smoke began to tower over the Yucaipa Valley on the afternoon of July 6. The Valley Fire had begun to burn in Forest Falls.
At press time, the fire has consumed 1,341 acres and reached 24 percent containment. Over 600 personnel are working to extinguish the blaze. There have been no reports of injuries or structural damage.
The cause of the fire is currently under investigation.
The community of Forest Falls was quickly ordered to evacuate on July 6, and a unified command was set up between CAL FIRE, San Bernardino County Sheriff, San Bernardino County Fire, and the US Forest Service to handle the blaze.
The evacuation orders were later lifted for residents of Forest Falls and Mountain Home Village on the evening of July 8. At press time, Highway 38 is open for residents of Forest Falls, Angelus Oaks, and Mountain Home Village. The highway will be open from Big Bear to the intersection with Sugar Pines Circle in Angelus Oaks. The campgrounds at Barton Flats and Heart Bar are open to all but can only be accessed through Big Bear.
Karen Reed, a Forest Falls resident, left the Red Cross shelter at St. Francis X. Cabrini Catholic Church with her husband Thomas at around 8 p.m. when the evacuation was lifted for residents of the area.
“We were down here (in Yucaipa), and I got a call from a friend of mine. I could see the fire, but I didn’t know it was Forest Falls,” Reed said. “My friend said, ‘Did you know it’s Forest Falls?’ and I said ‘Oh, my god.’”
The Reeds stayed at the Red Cross shelter for two and a half days while they waited out the fire.
“The people there were very lovely. Some people really have a gift. (But) we were antsy,” she said. “It’s kind of scary, because you don’t know if your house is going to go up. But I’m glad that I’m alive and that I have a home to go to. Some people, they lose everything.”
Forest Home Christian Camp, located in the Forest Falls area, evacuated approximately 500 children and staff from their facilities on July 6.
“(The evacuation process) has been really smooth,” said Gary Wingerd, president of Forest Home. “We have evacuation plans and we’re ready to go (in case of an emergency). Thankfully, it’s a good story.”
One of the difficulties with containing the blaze has been the rugged terrain of the area.
“We use helicopters to drop water because it’s extremely steep terrain,” said CAL FIRE spokesperson Cathey Mattingly. “They’re definitely a great resource.”
Despite this, fire officials were able to increase the containment figure through the weekend and into the following week. However, they remain cautious.
“If we heat back up, if we get a wind event, this could increase fire activity all over again,” said Mattingly.
She later added, “It’s an ever-changing situation.”
Lloyd Sherman, a paid call firefighter and 25 year resident of Forest Falls, was among the first responders to the fire.
“It was pretty gnarly,” he said. “It was ripping up the side of the mountain, wind-driven and terrain-driven.”
Sherman said the increased smoke motivated him to send his family to stay with relatives in Redlands on Saturday while he remained in the area.
“The smoke had gotten really thick,” he said. “By Sunday it was like a fog.”
He added that the response time was thankfully very fast. “We were on it in about 6 minutes. The whole world came in a half hour,” he said.
Another confounding factor for firefighters has been the brief thunderstorm activity that occurred over the area on the afternoon of July 7. The brief rain caused mudslides to cross Highway 38 north of the Valley of the Falls Drive, which carried debris into the road. While it did provide some help in the southern portion of the fire, the northern portion was unaffected.
Fires also impact air quality, and the Environmental Protection Agency put the Yucaipa area’s Air Quality index over the weekend in the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” range. This means that “Active children and adults, and people with lung disease, such as asthma, should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors.” As of press time, air quality has improved to the “good” category.
As of press time, the hiking trails of Momyer Trail, Vivian Creek Trail, San Bernardino Peak Trail, Forsee Creek Trail, South Fork Trail, and Aspen Grove Trail are all closed.
We will update information on our website at newsmirror.net as the situation progresses.