S. California unprepared for epic mountain blizzard, leaving many trapped and desperate
Los Angeles Times March 4, 2023
LOS ANGELES (Tribune News Service) — San Bernardino County officials acknowledged that they were unprepared for the historic back-to-back winter storms that swept through the mountains, leaving many residents stranded for more than a week amid gas leaks and diminishing food supplies.
Snowplows that usually clear the mountain roads were ineffective and now crews are working around the clock to reach the communities that are still snowed in as of Friday.
"When it comes to clearing the roads, I'd say we learned some valuable lessons," San Bernardino County Fire Chief Dan Munsey said during a joint news conference with state and local officials.
"Unfortunately, the snow came down so quickly and stacked up so quickly those front-end plows that we're so used to using on a routine basis became ineffective."
Over the last week, historic levels of snow blanketed the San Bernardino Mountains. Running Springs received 12 feet, Big Bear Lake 11 feet and Lake Arrowhead a little over 9 feet, according to the National Weather Service.
Emergency officials say they did not have the right type of equipment to respond to a blizzard of this size and scope.
"The warning that we had for the blizzard wasn't weeks. We only knew 24 to 36 hours there was a strong potential this was going to occur," Munsey said, adding the county would not have been able to receive the necessary equipment on such short notice.
Now road crews are using the tools they have available, including front-end loaders and hand shovels to clear snow berms that are 10 feet high in some areas.
Residents have become increasingly outraged by the inability to plow roads, leaving them stranded and unable even to get supplies.
San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus addressed the frustration at the news conference. He directly spoke to residents in Lake Arrowhead during his update.
"We're going to dig you out and we are coming," Dicus said. "We are making tremendous progress. I saw this from the air yesterday. The roads are being cleared. There are snowplows everywhere and you are going to see direct relief coming to your doorsteps shortly."
Residents have felt stranded for days, unsure when help is due to arrive.
Katie Mead, 43, considers herself one of the "lucky" ones in Lake Arrowhead — her street has been plowed at least once, and she has gotten less snow than some neighbors because she lives on the "sunny side" of the lake, she said.
During a break in the weather Sunday, she brought groceries to a family staying in her Airbnb property, dug them out of the snow and drove them to a plowed main road so they could get home. Before another wave of storms hit Monday night, Mead also picked up a neighbor who had been walking miles in the snow to get groceries.
Her street was plowed Sunday night, but since then around 3 feet of snow has accumulated.
"It does feel like they didn't start soon enough," Mead said. "They waited for the snow to accumulate to the point where our normal plows can't deal with it [and] we have to wait for heavy equipment to come. They literally have to move snow shovel-load by shovel-load and dump it somewhere else. There's so much snow."
Mead was one of many residents who tuned in Thursday afternoon to a livestreamed town hall hosted by Dawn Rowe, the San Bernardino County supervisor who represents most of the hardest hit areas in the mountains. County officials assured residents that they've been working with nonprofits to create distribution points in communities where food and other supplies have been running low, noting that some grocery store parking lots in Big Bear and surrounding areas had been cleared of snow.
Mead, however, pointed out in the comments on the video that some people aren't able to get to those distribution points.
"How is an elderly person supposed to walk even a block to a distribution center in 4 feet of snow?" she asked.
"Our main issue is that they're bringing in National Guard and bringing supplies up the mountain, but we're all snowed in," she said in an interview. "Unless you happen to be close to the area where they're doing distribution, it's kind of irrelevant."
Members of the California National Guard's Joint Task Force Rattlesnake, who typically work with wilderness firefighting crews, were dispatched to Lake Arrowhead this week after Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for San Bernardino and 12 other counties.
Lon Verstuyft has been trying to get help for his friends who are stuck at his cabin in Lake Arrowhead. The roads around the cabin are snowed in, and Verstuyft doesn't know when those will be cleared.
There were seven people in his cabin, and two were taken away by an ambulance that had to dig its way to the group, Verstuyft said.
"They took a diabetic person and an 80-year-old person who was not doing good in the cold," he said. "But they won't take the rest, because the ambulance said they'll only take them if there's a medical emergency."
The group were running out of food last week, but Verstuyft managed to contact a local who brought them groceries before the last storm arrived over the weekend. Now he's worried that they'll run out of food again.
"I can't get a straight answer from the county about what's going to happen," he said. "If I could get some information about the roads, I'd drive up there myself."
Mounds of snow still block the roads. Even firefighters are finding it difficult to respond to medical calls and blazes. Firefighters in Blue Jay, Crestline and Lake Arrowhead are responding to calls with snow cats — snowmobiles they typically deploy for backcountry rescues.
Crews have had to lug their equipment through the snow and dig to access fire hydrants, draining precious time to respond to emergencies, according to the San Bernardino County Fire Department.
At least two people were injured in a house fire Wednesday afternoon in the community of Blue Jay, about a mile from Lake Arrowhead Village.
The cause is under investigation, and Southern California Gas Co. is working with emergency responders to address reports of gas leaks, said Battalion Chief Mike McClintock.
"There's a lot of variables and a lot going on with 10 feet of snow dumped on our homes and communities," he said. "We're seeing structural instability, we're seeing utility issues, downed power lines, trees into power lines, and we had more than 70 reports of gas leaks in the area."
The mountains have seen more structure fires than normal, Fire Chief Munsey said at the news conference.
"We believe that these are due to natural gas leaks," he said. "Over the last 48 hours, we've had five of these gas fires that our firefighters have to fight. I spoke to one of our incident commanders last night, and he said that he hadn't slept in over four days."
After multiple reported explosions, emergency officials are urging residents to clear the snow around their gas meters and hydrants.
In addition to the fires, homes and businesses have faltered under the weight of the heavy snowfall.
Goodwin & Son's Market in Crestline was red-tagged after its roof collapsed. The family-owned business said there is still food, but it's unsafe for anyone to go inside.
"We would love more than anything to give the food out, but at this time are waiting for a structural engineer and the adjuster who are heading up the mountain this morning to meet with us," the store wrote in a Facebook post Thursday.
Aerial footage from KNBC-TV Channel 4 showed most of the building collapsed under the snow, with only its perimeter walls left standing. Crestline has received more than 8 feet of snow in the last week.
Supervisor Rowe surveyed the damage at Goodwin & Son's with fire officials Thursday.
"We are working hand-in-hand with the owners to rebuild as quickly as possible," she wrote in a statement on social media. "The Unified Command is working on a location to stage food and supplies for residents as quickly as possible."
Another market in Blue Jay, Jensen's Foods, was also red-tagged due to a compromised roof, the market wrote in an Instagram post Thursday.
It's unclear what caused a fire that destroyed Debra White's home in Lake Arrowhead shortly before midnight last Friday.
Her son, Joe Simons, lives just 2 miles away but couldn't leave his home because he was snowed in. His mother wasn't home when the house caught fire, but Simons knew right away because neighbors started to post images on Facebook of a fire on her street.
"I immediately knew it was her street," Simons said.
White is staying with family outside of Lake Arrowhead, but she is determined to return.
"She plans to rebuild when she can," Simons said. "She loves it up here and she wants to come back."
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