Monday morning, July 9, a Fire Risk meeting was held at the Idyllwild Fire Station. Lt. Zach Hall (far right) of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Hemet Station organized the session, which filled the room. Local and regional fire agencies participated. Photo by Steven King

“Homeless is not a crime. This is not a war on homelessness,” repeated Riverside County Sheriff’s Lt. Zach Hall. He, with deputies from the Sheriff’s Department’s Homeless Outreach Team, fire officials from all the local agencies and law enforcement for several federal and state agencies, were in Idyllwild to discuss the fire threat posed from homeless camping near town.

More than 50 residents, filling the conference room, attended the Monday morning meeting at the Idyllwild Fire Station. Hall said, during and after the session, “In my 20 years, I’ve attended many community meetings, mostly in areas larger than Idyllwild. This community wants to be involved. This is one of the largest turnouts I’ve seen.”

Hall emphasized that homelessness is not a crime, but homeless behavior and community actions may increase the risk of wildfire. “Using fire in close to the community poses a real risk to safety,” Hall underscored.

The meeting was an endeavor to share ideas and initiate conversations between the community and public officials to find actions and ideas that would reduce the fire risk.

The community’s behavior is critical to ultimately reducing the fire threat. “The homeless know this is a nice place to come and live off the land,” Hall informed the group. “You guys feed and house them. There are only four or five months a year when it is not hospitable, and then they come back.”

The homeless use campfires to cook or to keep warm. However, the risk to the community is real. U.S. Forest Service Battalion Chief Matt Ahearn shared that in the past two weeks, 13 to 14 fires have started  in these mountains and “almost all are human-caused.”

Hall asked participants to email him at zhall@riversidesheriff.org or to call 951-791-3420 if they identify a problem or have a concern. He described his role as project manager. He would share the information with the various fire and law enforcement resources, he would find the appropriate responsible agency, and he would track the response.

He called this “one-stop shopping” and urged writers or callers to be specific and detailed. He has 75 contacts who can handle these issues.

As an example of what Hall has done and is planning, he has already taken a night-time flyover the Hill. Its purpose was to identify camps, outside of county, state and federal campgrounds, and campfires, using infrared technology sensitive to heat being emitted.

Shortly he, with others, will visit the homeless camps. With the help of the Sheriff’s Department Homeless Outreach Team, they will offer the residents services, such as shelter, health and transportation. “Homelessness is a quality-of-life issue,” he stated.

While they will offer these services, Hall and Deputy Bronson Graham, a member of HOT, who has been to Idyllwild many times regarding homeless issues, were hopeful that some would accept the offer.

“But often, there are rules that go along, such as with apartments, and they don’t want rules,” Hall noted. “It’s a free-range lifestyle enjoyed by homeless.”

When asked the size of Idyllwild’s homeless population, Graham replied he thought it was in the range of 10 to 15. But they do move around, he added.

The visits to the camps may identify some residents who are wanted on outstanding warrants. Illegal activities, such as drugs, may be observed and be cause for arrest, but Hall emphasized community actions will matter.

“I’m not against people helping people,” Hall warned. “But be cognizant of what you’re giving out.” For example, food that must be cooked or heated before consumption will require a fire, he noted.

One person mentioned that they had been part-time residents for several years and recently moved here full-time. Their house oversees the transfer station. Consequently, they can see what goes on near there when it is not open.

“I’m very worried our house will burn. People use fire without precautions. It’s very scary to me how much debris is on the mountain side [along Saunders Meadow Road].”

In response, Graham urged this person and others to call 911 or the Hemet Station. “If you don’t call, we don’t know there’s a problem.”

When one attendee asked if giving the homeless a propane stove, so they would not need to start a fire, would reduce fire risk, Idyllwild Fire Assistant Chief Mark LaMont discouraged that. He pointed out that the campers would probably not clear the site and it’s possible it would be abandoned or accidentally over turned.

When encouraged to make more arrests, Hall explained that trespass violations or low-level misdemeanors will not keep people in jail. “My primary concern is fire risk! We can’t solve the entire problem.”

After one person asked what individual residents could do, LaMont urged them to abate their property. Defensible space is what firefighters need.

Education material, guides and prevention information are available at the fire stations, and at the Mountain Community Fire Safe Council office, President Norm Walker said.

The Idyllwild Library is both a cooling center in the summer and a warming center in the winter, so Branch Manager Shannon Ng offered a slightly different perspective.

“I’m required to provide services and others who provide services should get together and identify problems,” Ng said. “Tell me what we’re doing that should stop?” For example, she mentioned that the library would shut off outside outlets

Near the end, one participant offered a summary. “The homeless are not the only ones who can start a fire; we can still be good Samaritans without giving food that needs cooking, and this is a multi-agency action, and our community is one of the agencies.”

“We can’t work against the community; we have to work together to reduce the risk of fire,” Hall’s message concluded.

He promised another community meeting in about a month to discuss the actions taken and possible future plans.

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