With A Break In Mountain Blizzard, Officials & Residents Trying To Restore Normality

A lull this week in the severity of the succession of weather systems that hit San Bernardino County’s mountain communities for ten straight days provided a respite from the record hardship those who have chosen to live in the region’s highest altitudes experienced late last and earlier this month.
Beginning on February 22, more than 100 inches of snow fell on various spots in the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains in back-to-back-to-back storms, not letting up until March 2, icing major roads and leaving them impassable. Conditions were even worse within the internal communities of Crestline, Lake Gregory, Blue Jay, Lake Arrowhead, Cedarpines Park, Cedar Glen, Valley of Enchantment, Arrowbear, Sugarloaf, Twin Peaks, the county district of Big Bear and the incorporated city of Big Bear Lake, with cars buried in snow to the point that even when snowplows did reach where they were, often those cars would be damaged and rendered undrivable after the snowplow hit them. The sheer weight of the falling snow began causing damage to natural gas lines, resulting in fires and explosions. That weight proved too much for many roofs. Ones that were flat in many cases collapsed. Even some roofs that were slanted were not immune from damage, and many developed water leaks, a complicating factor in an environment where the temperature in some areas might peak in the low 40s by day and become subfreezing at night.More than 15,000 people found themselves stranded near the mountain top in the San Bernardino Mountains on the east and in Mt. Baldy and Wrightwood in the San Gabriel Mountains on the west with dwindling or no food, medicine and other supplies while residents of those areas who had sojourned down the mountain to their day jobs found themselves unable to return home for, in some cases, nearly a week. An impromptu effort by Good Samaritans down the hill in amazingly short order accumulated several tons of foodstuffs, propane and even medicine to resupply those trapped in place. They coordinated with the California Disaster Aerial Response Team, known by its acronym CalDART, to have those supplies, including food, baby formula, propane canisters and blankets, flown to Mountains Community Hospital in Lake Arrowhead or to ad hoc distribution centers in the midst of those places hardest hit by the storm in well-maintained helicopters flown by licensed pilots who are skilled, trained and experienced in making emergency landings in forbidding terrain and circumstances.
CalDART managed to dispatch four flights with those supplies to the mountains, at which point the sheriff’s department, citing safety concerns, refused to allow CalDART to participate further, leaving a growing store of foodstuffs and other critical supplies on the grounds of San Bernardino Community Hospital.
In multiple cases, snowplows proved ineffective or themselves became stuck, hindering travel rather than facilitating it. In scores of cases, even though the snowplows made their way through to certain points, emergency vehicles such as fire engines could not follow them.
At one point, the sheriff’s department, gamely and in coordination with the fire department, the California Division of Forestry, the California National Guard and the California Office of Emergency Services, began escorting convoys up the mountain, ones that included specially outfitted tractor-trailer 18 wheelers carrying groceries destined for the Stater Brothers markets in Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead. Those traveling collectives moved at a depressingly slow pace, and in any event progressed only so far into the mountain communities, leaving the more remote areas normally accessible by narrow roads completely iced over and snowed in.
Those roads, normally a lifeline to the homes along them and at or near their ultimate terminuses, proved useless. For more than ten days in many cases and for as much as two weeks in others, they could not be traversed.
There had been some anticipation by the third week of February of the storm to come, as the National Weather Service had predicted that the conditions the region was facing would create a circumstance that would likely blanket the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains with snow. According to San Bernardino County Fire Chief Dan Munsey, the fire department and the sheriff’s department had “pre-put” equipment and supplies in place in anticipation of the storm, but the sheer intensity of Mother Nature had overwhelmed those preparations and those who had made them and relied upon them.
The sheriff’s department, fire department and county public works had positioned “resources prior to this event,” he said. The fire department and sheriff’s department “worked together to make sure we had every available piece of specialized equipment, including Snow Cats for the emergency,” he explained. “As the blizzard was approaching, we were increasing staff. We went to the State of California and asked for prepositioning resources. The State Office of Emergency Services gave us additional dollars to up staff. The weather came in much worse than it’s ever been anticipated in Southern California, and it severely impacted our communities. It wasn’t just one weather event. It was several weather events that were stacked on top of each other. Despite our best efforts, we were still immovable in a lot of cases.”
The Snow Cats Munsey referenced are vehicles that use tracks rather than wheels to mobilize and are therefore ideally suited to maneuver in an arctic-like environment where the ground is completely covered in snow.
“To access emergencies, we deployed eight Snow Cats across the mountaintops,” Munsey said.
According to San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus, the Snow Cats performed more than adequately in the hostile snow-covered mountain environment, but were in short supply.
“We found that vehicle, because it has tracks, to be the most effective at getting us and the fire department to the areas that we need to be,” Dicus said on March 3.
With people blocked in by the walls of snow along the roads immediately outside their residences and the snow drifts blocking the larger roads that led from the main highways into the mountains to the smaller residential trails, together with the consideration that the snow plows themselves created berms of snow, sometimes compacted, that were extremely difficult to break through, reaching people trapped in their homes proved a challenge.
If not miraculously then still fortuitously, means of communication for the most part remained intact, such that so-called reverse 9-1-1 calls were made by which workers at the region’s emergency dispatch center were able to contact residents to verify that they were okay. The system further allowed calls for help to come through. According to Sheriff Dicus, as of the morning of March 3, there had been 24 calls for service from Wrightwood, 154 calls for assistance from the Big Bear County area and 295 calls from the City of Big Bear Lake, as well as 24 calls from residents in Lytle Creek and Mt Baldy. By far the most substantial number of calls for help – 786 – came, he said, from Twin Peaks. “These are the folks most affected by the deep snow falls,” he said at the time.
As a consequence, according to Dicus, a concentrated effort to relieve that particular area was made, as his department added 15 personnel to the Twin Peaks Station and outfitted them with one of the Snow Cats. In addition, the department contacted over 100 residents about transportation, particularly in the area of Cedar Pines Park and the Valley of Enchantment, which were very harshly hit by snow. A total of 17 people form those areas who simply did not have the supplies to be able to sustain themselves requested to be removed from their homes. The department complied.
In the initial stages of the crises, reports were that deaths were being avoided, or put another way, that deaths resulting directly from the storm had not been reported. Late this week, however, word has come that there were at least 13 deaths across the mountain tops, in Mt. Baldy and in Wrightwood during the time corresponding with the storm. While not all of those deaths have been fully evaluated as to cause, only one has been confirmed as occurring as a direct outcome from the storm, and in that case the death came as a consequence of a traffic accident which grew out of hazardous conditions resulting from the weather.
The coroner’s office, which in San Bernardino County is a division of the sheriff’s department, had made findings as to the likely causes of death in only six of the cases, returning preliminary analyses that the storm had been a contributory factor in the death of only that one involving the aforementioned traffic accident. In all of the other evaluated cases, the department used this language: “No evidence the weather, lack of food, or other resources contributed to the death” in rendering its conclusions.
In one of those cases, however, there was a suggestion that the cold had been a condition that complicated the circumstances that led to the death of 33-year-old man in Arrowbear pronounced dead at 53 minutes after noon on March 3. According to the coroner’s website, the deceased had a less than fully known but nevertheless complicated medical history and there was, to all appearances, “No trauma or suspicious circumstances” in what was an “apparent natural death at home” in which the “33-year-old male [was] found dead in [a] bedroom by family. He was last seen alive the night prior. History of limited medical conditions. No trauma or injuries seen. There was no indication the weather or a lack of food or resources contributed to the death.”
From shortly after the storms hit, there has been criticism leveled at county and state officials by some of those in the mountain communities over what has been characterized as an anemic and inadequate response to the circumstance and poor planning and preparation ahead of time.
Megan Vasquez, who is something of a community activist within Crestline, noted that as of March 6 the roads in Crestline had yet to be plowed. Vasquez hinted that Crestline, which is populated by residents of a lower income level than some more upscale places in the mountain community, had been ignored.
The shortage of Snow Cats, which would have provided far greater access to the remote and snowed-in areas of the San Bernardino Mountain communities, was a symptom of the lack of preparation, some residents lamented. They said at least two dozen of the vehicles and probably more were needed by the county’s emergency responders to be able to reach those most at risk. And both they and the National Weather Service insisted detailed meteorological data had been available to indicate what was coming at least as early as February 22. A blizzard warning was issued at that time by the National Weather Service, which had been sending daily weather briefings to local and state emergency management agencies since early in February. On February 12, the National Weather Service had issued a winter storm warning.
Between February 25 and March 2, according to the National Weather Service, Big Bear Lake experienced 134 inches of snowfall, Crestline had 99 inches and Forest Falls, which is on the east side of the mountains but at a lower altitude than Big Bear, was covered with 70 inches of snow. Near Mt. Baldy, which is on the south side of the San Gabriel Mountains, there was something on the order of 115 inches of snow, which resulted in an eventual avalanche that closed Mt. Baldy Road. Wrightwood, on the northern side of the San Gabriel Mountains, got off with a less intense storm than many other mountain communities but still was covered to a depth of 60 inches in snow.
Irene Ennis, a medical caregiver who lives in Running Springs, told the Sentinel on Sunday March 5, “One of my clients is 76, has COPD and high blood pressure. She has been out of meds for almost 10 days. The Rite Aid up here is closed because the roof is compromised. She cannot get out of her house. The roads are not plowed. Her friend, who lives in Redlands, offered to get her prescription fille at the Ride Aid there and bring it up to her. He tried to get them to her, but the sheriff’s office will not allow him up the mountain to give them to her. I’ve spent five days trying to work around this problem. The sheriff’s office offered to remove her from her home. I finally got the prescription moved to the CVS in Lake Arrowhead, which is just a few miles from her house. I contacted the sheriff to ask if they would please deliver her medicine to her. The answer was a resounding ‘No!’ They will go to her house to remove her but not to deliver medication.”
Ennis continued, “We called the county ‘hotline’ looking for help and they kept saying they would call her back but never have. This entire situation with the county is incredible. They are totally inept.”
Evan and Laura Tischofer from Crestline told the Sentinel, “We have a Ford F-350 and have had it chained up since Friday [February 24]. We have traveled the mountain each day as our truck was one of the few that could get around since this started.” The Tischoffers said a couple that is staying with them and one of their neighbors have “gone around, asking if anyone needs anything. We have shoveled driveways and dug vehicles out so our older/elderly residents can get to their doctor appointments and get what they need. We have been shoveling snow stacked 10 feet high, cars buried with five feet of snow on top. The roads are slowly getting plowed. They have started with one car length of space, which means that two vehicles coming opposite direction have to inch around each other or one backs up for wider spot of the street. At this time, there aren’t a lot of vehicles out besides the crews working because a lot of residents remain on streets that are unplowed or not plowed at all in Valley of Enchantment and the areas higher up. Currently, it seems that most of the streets in Crestline surrounding the town area where Goodwin’s was have now been plowed to the asphalt, however only wide enough for one vehicle. Our street remains barely plowed. The plowing has been a process as the snow was so thick on the ground that after a few days it freezes into hard ice. Each time they go by – with many trees laden with snow that falls on the street, folks shoveling driveways, and now a new storm has arrived – the plows continues to push away new snow and find themselves having to go by several times to get to asphalt. Our street, a bowl road, which is close to the town, remains the only one in the surrounding area yet to be down to asphalt.”
The Tischofers reported that though they are “grateful for the presence” of the sheriff’s deputies, fire department personnel, the California Department of Transportation workers, the National Guardsmen and the California Office of Emergency Services workers, “it seems that the planning and execution of help has been below expectations.”
After the failure of the Goodwin’s grocery store roof, the Tischofers reported, “The building was leveled to the ground. That meant that the only place where residents could get food and necessities was no longer an option. We have a few liquor marts and a 7-11 and those were quickly emptied out as residents were panicking about getting food and supplies. There are a few grocery stores higher up the mountain but the roads were very treacherous and residents were unable to get to them because their cars were buried and the streets were unplowed.”
Residents in the higher elevation areas of the mountain have, the Tischofers said, experienced “higher levels of snow and have been unable to get to their local market or grocery store. We still have not heard about how they are being handled. It snowed for seven days total, with Tuesday night, the 28th, providing the heaviest snow fall. It has been an astounding sight. Our truck has taken quite a beating trying to navigate treacherous unplowed roads and fitting through a narrow space on each side. The narrow space is okay when the road is down to asphalt but since most roads were not cleared at all until yesterday (Sunday March 4), the truck was sliding all around the road, even with chains on. It is a miracle we didn’t hit any parked cars. We now need to replace the clutch and the windshield has been deeply scratched and therefore compromised. We are grateful we have been lucky enough not to lose electricity and that we can continue our endeavors to provide needed help.”
“However,” the Tishofers wrote, “our last gripe is the road closures for all highways down the mountain. Residents are running out of food, us included, and we, and everyone else cannot drive down the mountain all the way to the grocery stores below to bring food and necessities because the roads are closed to everyone except emergency delivery trucks and those who are designated to help. The California Highway Patrol posted a warning that downbound highways are open but residents who leave the mountain are at a great risk of being unable to return at all or being delayed for hours.”
Laura Tishofer said that clearing the roads and getting food to those who are on the brink of starvation should be a priority. “Emergency personnel can do so much at a time, and so people like my husband and myself are sitting with our hands tied and frustrated about it because we could be adding to that help by bringing food back for residents.”
She said, “It has been a tumultuous experience. From snow on our deck reaching the roof to the loss of the grocery store to the love and gratitude I have for this community for coming together once again to help each other, it has tightened the bond between my husband and myself.”
San Bernardino County Chief Executive Leonard Hernandez told the public during a videotaped exposition, “Hindsight is always 2020. Even though I believe the team did an amazing job of mobilizing before, if the National Weather Service ever issues a blizzard warning again, we will take a different approach immediately. We’ve never had one before.”
Sheriff Dicus asserted that he, his department, the county and state agencies were being unfairly maligned over the response to the storm’s challenges, emphasizing that the first responders were making an earnest effort to alleviate the circumstance.
“You think that you may not see snowplows and a number of other things,” Dicus said on March 3. “Folks, we’re here for you. We’re gonna dig you out and we’re coming. 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.”
Dicus asked for patience, saying, “We have to follow the process. And I like to describe the process as our state highways are like arteries. Then you go down to county roads, which are like veins, and you go to individual services and homes that are like capillaries. Those services and homes that people need to access are blocked by walls of snow. So, even though we’re making progress, we still have to knock down those walls, get peoples’ driveways cleared, get businesses cleared, and a number of things. We’re making huge strides in that area.”
There was reaction from many people, including those living in San Bernardino County and well outside California, including ones who live in places where dealing with harsh winter conditions is second nature, who dismissed the criticism of the governmental officials as both unrealistic and immature.
The internet service provider Yahoo featured for its users a number of articles and video snippets relating to San Bernardino County’s mountain conditions that had been published or run by local news and media outlets, newspapers and television stations which contained both direct and implied criticism of the government’s emergency response to the storm. One of those, a reprint of an article that ran in the Los Angeles Times which quoted mountain residents describing their sense of isolation amid a less than effective relief effort by local and state authorities, had garnered 859 comments by the Sentinel’s press time, the majority of which suggested the mountain residents quoted were being too harsh in their condemnation of governmental authorities and emergency workers.
“This is like people who live along the coasts and don’t evacuate when given ample time of a hurricane and then blame the government,” said one.
Offered another, “The problem is the people who don’t plan or try to help themselves. Anyone who has run out of food in a week or two failed to plan. Anyone trapped in a car failed to listen to warnings. Anyone who abandoned a stuck car in the road added to the problem.”
“I suspect many of these super critical residents would have been super critical if last year the county had wanted to purchase extra equipment ‘in case’ there was a super storm,” one individual stated. “’Tax dollars wasted!’ Sometimes even the best preparations are not enough. I would suggest that they thank the public employees who worked long hours in very uncomfortable and trying circumstances for doing their jobs. Be glad that they are alive and can complain.”
A similar sentiment was offered by another person. “In order to maintain a fleet of snow removal vehicles to deal with a once-every-generation snowstorm, that would require purchase, maintenance and storage of a fleet of such equipment. Additional tax revenue would have to be collected. This in turn would require a tax to mountain residents (who are the only benefactors of this fleet) that they would not embrace and probably complain about bitterly,” that person said.
One observer averred, “Question really is why weren’t the individuals better prepared. Always hope for the best and prepare for the worst case. Living in the mountains means the occupants bear some of the responsibility for having emergency supplies on hand and being self sufficient for a decent amount of time.”
Such criticisms of those caught in the storm provoked some pointed responses.
“I am from Running Springs,” said one. “There hasn’t been a storm like this since 1992. Like with any other natural disaster, residents can prepare in advance as much as possible, but may still need outside help in dealing with the aftereffects. The residents cannot possibly clear all of the city/county roads themselves – additional plows are needed from neighboring cities to accomplish this massive task. The electricity was out for many residents, so in theory they ‘should’ have a generator on hand to accommodate for this possibility, but how can they get additional fuel for the generator if the roads aren’t clear enough to access the gas station? Or, what if the local gas station (of which there is only one in Running Springs) has already been tapped dry by residents who can get out of their homes, but a refueling truck can’t get up the mountain to access the gas station to refill the tanks? There is so much more here than just ‘selfish’ residents dealing with the consequences of their own choices.”
“I live in Arrowhead and we were so prepared with generators, food, water wood etc,” wrote one mountain resident, identified by the first name Patrick. “The only complaint is the government did not respond with competence. We pay tons of taxes, but the service was not good. I have always had the view that we can’t rely on government and my family and friends did not.”
Another person, identified by the name DeAnna, posted, “So what do you expect the elderly and lower income people to do? Not everyone has the ability to just leave their homes.”
Another wrote, “Shouldn’t matter where someone chooses to live. This is what tax dollars are to be used for: to fund resources in case of these kind of emergencies.”
One commenter stated, “You are asking government to be competent and if you really believe they can be then you have much larger problems than snow. Therefore, either be prepared or don’t live in a highly inaccessible area. We call it ‘common sense’ here in Michigan.”
Mark Gutglueck

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