Wildfire engulfs some of the finest singletrack in Southern California.
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It all started last Monday when my friend Brendan Collier posted a couple photos on Facebook of a brush fire that broke out in Mountain Center a couple miles below the town of Idyllwild. As the day went on, the updates got more frequent. The fire was spreading quickly. All I could think was how devastating this fire could be to Idyllwild, a gorgeous little mountain town at 6,000 feet elevation in the San Jacinto Mountains above Palm Springs that thrives on outdoor recreation.
The extensive network of singletrack trails in Idyllwild built by locals boasts some of the best mountain biking in all of Southern California. Brendan and his wife Mary own The Hub Cyclery, the only bike shop in Idyllwild, and the go-to source for trail knowledge, gear and a post-ride hangout.
Instead of watching the news or checking websites, I kept looking for Brendan’s updates, as he was on his moto, tearing all over the place taking pictures and talking with fire officials. Within 24 hours the fire had grown to nearly 10,000 acres and less than 10 percent containment. A number of trails were already burning. Several homes were also burning. There were reports of dead mountain lions and deer.
Then I saw a picture of “The Spine”, a popular rock feature that I had ridden only three months prior. The trees were completely gone. It was almost unrecognizable, sitting completely nude in a giant charred field devoid of any trees. I was heartbroken and couldn’t fathom the thought of a fire fully engulfing my favorite place to ride in all of Southern California.
Thankfully for residents of Idyllwild, the winds were blowing away from town. But then an unexpected shift happened, and the fire began bearing down on Idyllwild. Mandatory evacuations were announced. Residents of Idyllwild left for safer ground, while hardy residents who refused to leave were asked by police to provide the contact info of their dentist, just in case their bodies were too charred to identify.
As the fire closed within three miles of town, the heavens had mercy and poured down more than an inch of rain on Idyllwild, helping firefighters gain a stronghold on the blaze. It was a turning point for firefighters, and containment quickly rose. After a couple days, the evacuation order was lifted, and residents started returning to town.
All told, the Mountain Fire has burned nearly 27,000 acres in the San Jacinto Wilderness. Nearly 3,000 firefighters battled the blaze with 230 fire engines, 18 helicopters and massive DC10 tanker planes. Thanks to their heroic efforts, nobody has died and less than a few dozen structures were lost.
The fire is slowly dissipating and Brendan has been able to do some recon of the area, assessing what trails burned and what were spared. There are a few areas that did burn, including many of the May Valley trails, but thankfully, a majority of trails in and around Idyllwild and Hurkey Creek were spared from the blaze.
Due to the mandatory evacuation, for nearly a week businesses were shut down, unable to provide goods and services to local residents and visitors. So this weekend, July 27-28, the Hub Cyclery is hosting a Rejuvenation Ride, encouraging people from all over Southern California to come up and help get the local economy going again while riding some amazing terrain.
It’s a weekend to thank the selfless men and women who worked endless hours to protect Idyllwild from the fire, and celebrate the remarkable community and network of trails that encircle this idyllic mountain town. So if you live in Southern California and have this coming weekend open, consider spending a few days in Idyllwild – especially if you’ve never ridden there before. The trails are so good you’ll come home ready to plan your next visit.
Fire is a fascinating phenomenon. Nothing else in this world can produce such devastation and death yet lay the foundation for a rebirth, bringing what was dead back to life stronger than ever before. Although it may take a decade before the scars around Idyllwild to heal, the trails that burned will recover to be even more lush, green and vibrant.
The Mountain Fire was a reminder to me that every day is a gift, both in our lives and the trails we get to ride. Never take your trails for granted, for tomorrow they can lie amongst scorched earth resembling nothing more than a barren moonscape. And the next time you ride past a fire station, go in, shake a firefighter’s hand and say thank you. They are the protectors of our forests and our lives, and to them we own a limitless debt of gratitude.