Jo Ann Trosper had a front-row seat for a national news story – a seat she’d rather not have had – when an Oct. 26-30 arson-set wildfire decimated 40,000 acres in western Riverside County, Calif., threatening some 1,000 campers that were preparing to spend the Halloween weekend at the Silent Valley Club RV Resort, a private park for which she serves as general manager.
The “Esperanza fire” was set about 1 a.m. on Oct. 26 near Esperanza Ave. in Cabazon, about 13 miles northeast of the Silent Valley resort. Fanned by Santa Ana wind gusts up to 60 mph, the wildfire quickly grew out of control and spread across the San Jacinto Mountains and headed toward Silent Valley, which is located at an elevation of 3,500 feet in a mountain valley between Banning and Idyllwild.
“The whole mountain was lit up. I thought, ‘Oh, my Lord, we’re in for trouble,’” said Trosper, who lives 45 minutes away in Palm Springs and rushed to the scene after being notified of the threat. “At the resort, there were ashes falling everywhere, it was raining ash. My eyes were burning. They were handing out face masks to people for breathing.”
Soon after she arrived, officials closed Highway 243, the only way into the resort. Vehicles were racing through smoke and flames just before the road was closed, according to reports from the Associated Press.
Firefighters said it was safer to keep the campers inside the resort because the blaze would be stymied by a firebreak created several years earlier around the area. Officials also said the resort’s campers had enough food and water because they had prepared to be there for the weekend.
Within a few hours, several hundred residents of nearby Poppet Flat were evacuated to the resort. That sent the 850-site resort’s population to over 1,500, Trosper estimated.
“At some points, we got to see flames as the fire brushed right up against us and came into our storage yard,” she said. “We saw flames coming over the front of us.”
Everyone was led to the family center in the middle of the 460-acre resort where they received an update on the fire. Campers were instructed to take down their tents and awnings and anything combustible as they would become prone to the falling embers.
While firefighters battled the blaze around the resort, Silent Valley staff members Randy Butler, a security manager, and Michael Munguia, a ranger, manned the resort’s fire engine and kept fires from breaking out on the premises.
“Every time we thought the fire would pass us, it circled back for more. It seemed like it came back four times,” Trosper said.
The Forest Service firefighters used the resort’s fishing pond for water to fight the fire. Helicopters lowered large buckets into the pond and ferried them to the nearby flames.
By Friday afternoon, the winds shifted once more and flames returned to threaten the resort. Everyone was ordered to leave. The evacuation was orderly, she said, but not without much trepidation. RVs and personal belongings were left behind.
The fire, however, took another path. Trosper believes the winds shifted once again and sent the fire in another direction.
Though the resort was safe, the fire was far from over. Firefighters continued to battle the blaze through the weekend until reaching 100% containment on Monday.
Though Silent Valley escaped with just slight damage to a handful of RVs in the storage lot that got singed, the toll from the fire was extensive. The fire claimed the lives of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters. Four died just a mile from the resort as they became trapped by the fast-moving blaze. A fifth firefighter died in a hospital on Tuesday (Oct. 31).
In addition, 34 residences and 20 outbuildings were destroyed.
Trosper said the resort’s 6,800 members were taking up a collection for the families of the fallen firefighters. The deaths were more poignant for Trosper, a former Forest Service firefighter who likely would have been in the midst of the firefighting if she were still a volunteer.