'Super bloom' swarms force California city to say no more

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A small California city that was overrun by visitors four years ago when heavy winter rains produced a “super bloom” of wild poppies has a message for the public after this year's deluge: Do not come. You could be arrested.

The poppies are beginning to bloom but so far on a small scale — and the canyon where they grow and parking areas are now completely off-limits, Lake Elsinore Mayor Natasha Johnson told a press conference where she recounted the chaos of 2019.

“The flowers were beautiful; the scene was a nightmare,” Johnson said.

Poppies are found throughout California in spring and summer, but usually not as extensively as the blankets of gold that in 2019 covered slopes near Lake Elsinore, a city of 71,000 in Riverside County about 60 miles (96 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles.

The focus of the excessive attention was Walker Canyon, a natural area with a hiking trail located just off heavily traveled Interstate 15.

“Back in 2019 numerous safety incidents occurred on the trail and on our roadways,” Johnson said. “Tens of thousands of people, as many as 100,000 in a weekend — Disneyland-sized crowds — seeking to experience nature trampled the very habitat that they placed so high in regard and sought to enjoy.”

People illegally parked their cars along the freeway and neighborhoods were so gridlocked that parts of the city were essentially severed, affecting emergency services and the ability of residents to go to stores and work, Johnson said.

People waited for hours in queues to see the canyon and many were unprepared for the hike, resulting in injuries.

California Highway Patrol Lt. Craig Palmer said the agency has already begun saturation patrols of the area, and that freeway shoulders are only for use in emergency situations.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco warned that there will be zero tolerance for parking violations and the result could be a citation, a vehicle being towed or worse.

“It is a misdemeanor infraction, and you're subject to arrest and booking into jail,” Bianco said.

The mayor said Lake Elsinore usually welcomes visitors but the 2019 phenomenon came at a cost that was too high for residents.

“This weekend I encourage you to focus on the Super Bowl and not the super bloom that we’re not having,” she said.