Whitewater Fire causes estimated $200,000 in damage

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Fire damage at the Whitewater Preserve is seen Sept. 24 following an intense blaze. The preserve is closed to the public until further notice. (Joyce Nugent | Viewpoints)
By Joyce Nugent

The Whitewater Fire in the wildlife corridor between the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains near Palm Springs has incurred an estimated $200,000 in damages. 

The Wildlands Conservancy spent upwards of $2.3 million over the past 10 years to transform the biodiversity of the landscape and provide educational programming to school-aged children.

The preserve, which is free to the public, is surrounded by the Bureau of Land Management’s San Gorgonio Wilderness area. It includes the year-round Whitewater River and a rich habitat that hosts two endangered bird species.

“What I am most worried about is the after effects of the fire,” said Lucas Wilgers, assistant preserve manager. “When the migratory birds come back to nest, they will look for the live, green, lush, tall willow canopy they left a year ago. They are instead going to find a bunch of short six or seven foot tall young willows and standing dead willows.”

Wilgers said he hopes the birds decide to nest in the area anyway, as places like the preserve are crucial to their survival. If the area is not to their liking, he said, the birds may not have the necessary energy resources to look elsewhere.

The wildlife includes bighorn sheep, mountain lions, deer, bears, coyotes, birds and many other indigenous animals that rely on Whitewater Canyon’s native vegetation. They may have trouble finding enough food to survive. 

Restoration is necessary to re-establish structure and function and to protect and restore critical habitat, riparian areas, watersheds and many other attributes.

Wilgers recounted that Jack Thompson, Desert Preserves regional director, became aware of the Whitewater Fire while surveying damage from the nearby Apple Fire when he saw a new dark plume of smoke. As flames engulfed telephone poles along the road, Thompson precariously drove between walls of fire to escape the inferno.

A wood chipper parks nearby a charred tree Sept. 24 following the Whitewater Fire. In the foreground, willows have begun to regenerate. (Joyce Nugent | Viewpoints)

The first engine that responded to Thompson’s call picked him up and drove into the canyon. Thompson and the engineer fought the fire until additional fire engines and a fire helicopter arrived. 

Alone, Thompson and the first firefighter on scene saved the Ranger Station Visitor Center, picnic areas and many large trees. Seventy acres were charred beyond recognition before the fire was fully contained.  

The millions spent to extinguish a wildfire account for only a fraction of the total costs associated with a wildfire event. A full accounting considers long-term costs of the losses, including impacts to watersheds, ecosystems, infrastructure and the negative impact on plants and animals that may take years to recover from. 

Wilgers developed a list of post fire priorities, which includes treating salvageable trees and reducing large concentrations of burned trees. The restoration plan also includes repairing damaged land improvements such as water pipes, fences and gates, and addressing public safety issues like flagging burned trees that may present a hazard due to falling limbs.

Although the landscape at the Whitewater Preserve may appear devastated following the fire, Wilgers said it will recover. 

“We never want to turn people away from this place,” Wilgers said. “Unfortunately, sometimes we have to. We want people to know that whatever caused us to close our gates, fire, flash flood or crazy out of control pandemics, we always want to make this place as available as possible. We will always be here. We will reopen.”

The conservancy is asking for help.  Volunteers are needed to help plant seedlings, repair infrastructure and remove burned debris.  Funds are needed to purchase plants, seeds and hire professional help as necessary.

To volunteer, visit  https://www.wildlandsconservancy.org/preserve_whitewater.html.To donate, visit https://bit.ly/2HEZFSX.

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