Lake Elsinore, Wildomar and Lakeland Village share a prominent place in the minds of firefighters, and the recent Falls Fire showed why.
The two cities and one unincorporated area are situated at the base of steep mountain slopes, and the ocean is not very far away. The topography and onshore flow make the area one of only two in the state in which fire burns just as fast downhill as it does uphill, according to Cal Fire Battalion Chief Steve Beach.
Only the east-facing mountains in Mendocino County share the same characteristics, Beach said.
“It is country that wants to burn,” the chief told an audience assembled for Wednesday night’s Wildomar City Council meeting.
The downhill stretch of east-facing mountain slopes just west of Wildomar and Lakeland Village, spanning north to Lake Elsinore's McVicker Canyon, have the most potential to burn fast, Beach said.
The Falls Fire that broke out Aug. 5 in Morrell Canyon, just west of Lake Elsinore, demonstrated the chief’s point.
“It was one of the fastest moving fires I’ve seen in a long time,” said Beach, whose firefighting career spans decades.
The Falls Fire broke out around 10 a.m., but when the usual afternoon winds shifted, the flames quickly marched down the hills into Lakeland Village.
During the firefighting efforts, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Vickie Wright said, "Lake Elsinore is known for its updrafts and thermals," noting that, typically, the afternoon hours are difficult for firefighters.Between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. -- "it's a critical time," said U.S.F.S. spokesman Ralph Gonzalez. "Winds shift and it becomes very dangerous."
All homes in Lakeland Village were spared during the Falls Fire, thanks to firefighter efforts and
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Since 1917, the mountains above Lake Elsinore and Wildomar have burned with fury, including the 1959 Decker Fire that left half-dozen firefighters dead, according to Beach.
Morrell Canyon, the ignition site of the Falls Fire, is in Decker Canyon.
Beach estimated that $9.5 million in property was saved from destruction in the Falls Fire.
“I think that was underestimated,” said Wildomar City Councilman Ben Benoit, who praised the fire suppression efforts.
The cost to contain the Falls Fire reached $3.5 million, a cost that’s being shared between Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service, Beach said. The federal government is covering some of the expense of fighting the blaze.
“There is no cost to Lake Elsinore,” Beach confirmed.
The chief warned that Southwest Riverside County is currently experiencing fire conditions that are more typical for October, when brush is extremely dry, and he said residents should expect more wildland fires before the rains hit.
“We are by no means done,” he said.
As for residents who create dangerous conditions for firefighters by not creating defensible space around their homes, Beach was matter of fact: “I won’t put my firefighters into those situations.”