Riverside County 3rd District Supv. Chuck Washington hosted a multi-agency meeting to address recent snow visitor issues in the Riverside County mountains. Held at 1 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29, in Hemet, the meeting was requested by Idyllwild Fire Department Chief Patrick Reitz following successive weekends in which Idyllwild faced unprecedented numbers of snow-play visitors and degrading of public and private areas.

Said Reitz, “I sent the initial request to Supv. Washington to call this meeting. No one has seen the sheer volume of cars and people, not just in the village but above the village, in residential and public areas, and in Anza and Poppet Flats. Littering was huge. There was destruction of property, trespassing and double parking that made traffic flow difficult.”

Reitz stated that unlike Big Bear and the San Bernardino Mountains, Idyllwild is not a snow recreation area with public snow resorts and dedicated snow-play facilities. “We’re a boutique business town,” he observed. Reitz discussed the difficult balancing act in attracting winter tourists for the benefit of local businesses, inns and restaurants, and accommodating huge numbers of snow-play visitors who overwhelm Idyllwild’s limited infrastructure.

Reitz acknowledged that each agency in attendance at the meeting has limited resources, but that cooperation among them is necessary to address a problem of this scope. “I was hoping to have this discussion because we can’t do it alone. It needs cooperation.”

In discussing the weekend after the first major snowfall of the season, Reitz said, “We would have had a tough time for ambulances getting off the Hill [because of traffic congestion and illegal parking].”

Washington moderated the meeting and sought input from attending public agencies — Riverside County Transportation Department, Caltrans, Cal Fire, Riverside County Fire Department, Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, California Highway Patrol, U.S. Forest Service and IFPD. Bill Tell of Idyllwild’s Mile High Radio Club attended at Reitz’s invitation because of possible use during snow emergencies of WNKI, Idyllwild’s emergency radio station.

Washington addressed the working group, “The purpose of the meeting is to talk about the roles we play in different aspects and to discuss what we can do to improve the situation the next time. I’d like to hear from different agencies about the problem and how we might solve it. We can attribute some of the visitors’ behavior to not knowing [governing regulations] and affordability [of coming to nearby Idyllwild rather than to snow resort areas in the San Bernardino Mountains.]” He encouraged agency representatives to candidly discuss the issues, and propose possible solutions and feasible ways to implement them. He stressed the necessity of visitor education as a key component of dealing with the problem.

The meeting was scheduled to run one hour, but in that short space of time, a number of workable solutions were proposed. Discussion then centered on how to begin implementing:

  • extra trash cans in public recreation areas and in the village business district;
  • electronic signs at the base of Hill highways warning of snow-caused traffic delays and congestion;
  • mobilizing Idyllwild’s volunteer agency base (Rotary, Mountain Disaster Preparedness, Community Patrol and Community Emergency Response Team members) to help educate and monitor;
  • signage in pullouts regarding “no parking” for snow recreation — parking for putting on chains or other emergencies only;
  • identifying “traffic/parking/congestion” pinch points and have law enforcement concentrate on those areas; and
  • exploring how to send dangerous snow condition and traffic alerts to mobile devices, much like weather and Amber alerts.

Typical of the work-the-problem attitude that characterized the meeting, when electronic signs were being discussed, Caltrans District 8 PIO Terri Kasinga briefly left the meeting to make a phone call. When she returned she had gotten approval to have electronic signs placed on Caltrans’ right of ways. “If you [the two agencies at the meeting with the signs] place them on our right of ways, we won’t touch them.”

Many of the suggestions are already in effect in the San Bernardino County mountain resort areas, although attendees who have worked those areas noted solutions can often be of short duration, given the sheer number of visitors. Kasinga noted, “The best place [for visitors] to go when it gets that crowded is to go back home.” She stressed that state highways can’t be closed just because of overcrowding by visitors, but electronic signs warning of significant delays because of traffic congestion can sometimes deter additional visitors.

Washington stressed this as the first of more meetings with this working group and that the exchange of ideas and potential solutions is ongoing. “I don’t think I’ve heard anything that will completely solve these problems, but we have some things to begin with,” he said.

Washington thanked the attending agencies for their cooperation, and noted it is important to try things that have the potential to work and help mitigate observed problems.