Chief Patrick Reitz, Idyllwild Fire Protection District, confirmed his department responded to reports of a bonfire in Alvin Meadows in back of the Idyllwild Arts campus. Reitz noted a response time of 10:30 pm. Saturday, Aug. 15, the first night of the annual Jazz in the Pines festival on the IA campus — a time when the town is packed with tourists.

Reitz confirmed the fire was allegedly started by local youths, but noted none were around when IFPD arrived and the fire had already been extinguished. Nonetheless, with fire danger at maximum threat levels, the danger of a major calamity during a time when the town is full was very real.

Michael McDonald, an employee at the campus dining hall, called 911 to report the fire. McDonald identified three participants by name, none of them minors, and stated that the fire site was a regular party spot for a small group of Idyllwild locals.

IAF administration and the U.S. Forest Service, on whose land the bonfire site was discovered by firefighters, did not respond to inquiries before press time.

Names of the three young men identified by McDonald are being withheld until law enforcement identification is made.

In one further threat to the town and forest, residents on the turn-out on Highway 243 leading out of Idyllwild, near the Banana Belt, reported squatters on the large acreage plot for sale on the downhill side of the highway. Resident Penelope Smrz called the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, Hemet Station, to warn of at least two tents that had been there for some time and of the danger of squatter campfires.

Deputy Jason Green responded to the property location, 40-plus acres owned by Charlene Lane. Smrz showed Green dozens of large garbage bags filled with recyclables (cans and plastic bottles) stored on Smrz’s property adjacent to the highway and Lane’s property. Green radioed the Forest Service and FS Law Enforcement Ranger Shelley Murrell responded. Murrell and Green hiked down the steep property and found five squatter tents. Green said he would arrest the squatters when they are found.

Smrz said both Green and Murrell voiced concern over extreme fire danger from the illegal camping. The steep upslope from the squatter camp to the highway could be a perfect conduit for wildfire should squatters build a campfire at their tent site.

Smrz also notified Olivia Barnes in Riverside County 3rd District Chuck Washington’s office, as well as County Code Enforcement.