By JP Crumrine
The wet winter does not alleviate fire season, it simply creates different threats, Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins said during the March meeting of the Mountain Area Safety Taskforce.
Grasses dry and die quickly during low rain and drought periods, which creates fire threats. Rain and snow encourage the growth of tall and abundant grasses, which when they die poses another type of fire threat.
But fire threats were a small portion of the MAST meeting last week. Marsha Kennedy, Idyllwild resident, spoke to the collected agencies about the mounting concern of the damage and danger inflicted upon local residents from the number of people who come to the Hill to play in the snow following the recent storms.
Kennedy emphasized that a place with adequate parking, food concessions and snow is what these visitors are seeking. Unfortunately, in the absence of a specific snow-play site, strangers to town are trespassing on private property, creating damage and often parking illegally, posing a danger for emergency vehicles that have difficulty passing the crowded and sometimes blocked streets.
“They’re just looking for places to enjoy the snow and a place to park,” she lamented to the attendees. Unfortunately, in their passion to enjoy the snow, they often become unwelcome and rude visitors — trespassing, ignoring or threatening property owners, and leaving trash scattered in the winter wonderland they seek.
One of her suggestions was better signage for Humber Park, which is in the U.S. Forest Service’s domain. More specific signs about the availability of parking or no parking might discourage drivers from using Fern Valley Road. Frustrated with no available parking lot, they often park along Fern Valley Road, nearly eliminating passage for residents or emergency vehicles.
“The Humber Park signs basically are misleading and not applicable to snow visitors. This contributes to the Fern Valley problems,” she said and suggested more effective signage, such as “No snow parking” or “Not snow plowed.”
Kennedy said her group realizes these visitors cannot be prohibited or discouraged from coming to Idyllwild. The snow-capped peaks, glistening in the bright winter sun, are a strong attraction for valley and coastal residents.
In a survey she conducted, restaurants acknowledged they benefit from additional business, but “it wasn’t across the board,” she stated. “They are here for the day to play in snow, not to buy a cabin.”
California Highway Patrol Officer Mike Murawski said it is difficult to cover the whole mountain with limited staff. The deputies do try to warn people not to park along roads and the highways. After 15 or 20 minutes, they will write citations, but “they don’t have the manpower to stay all day.”
The Sheriff’s Department should be called about trespassing offenses, he noted. If available, they can come and speak to the offenders. Local residents should avoid a direct confrontation.
Kennedy appreciated the feedback and plans a community meeting at 1 p.m. Saturday, April 8, at the Nature Center.
Regarding fire issues, Edwina Scott, executive director of the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council, said the progress has been made on work to revise the Community Wildfire Protection Plan. Also MCFSC, has some limited funding to help residents remove trees killed from bark-beetle infestations.
However, she expressed disappointment in the small attendance at the January MCFSC public meeting. Despite years of drought, only recently changed, enthusiasm for fire protection seems to be waning, Scott said with despair.
Supporting her, MCFSC President Norm Walker said his experience suggests that the abundant rain will help grass grow throughout the summer. “People don’t like to do abatement knowing they’ll have to do it again,” he said.
“Inspections are the key,” responded Hawkins, who urged finding more ways to increase public awareness of the fire threats.
Pine Cove resident Marge Muir noted, “There’s a tremendous influx of new people. You have to go back to more thorough inspections.”
Riverside County Fire has three priorities this spring, Hawkins said. Fuel abatement, either fuelbreaks or broadcast burning, is number one.
The other two are enforcement of Public Resources Code section 4291, for defensible space, and being prepared to respond.
In other business, Mark Moreau of the CC&R said, “There are no operational changes at the Transfer Station. Residents can bring pine needles to the Transfer Station at no charge.”
Lisa Thompson of the county’s Waste Management Department, reported that they are working to establish a hazardous waste collection at the grinding station. This may be accomplished later this spring, she added.