Winter Mountain Storms Present Overwhelming Challenges To Responders

The brutal storm that hit the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains beginning last week which is now being referred to as the “Blizzard of ‘23” for more than four days this week caught county officials unprepared to immediately deal with the onslaught of snow drifts in excess of ten feet high, icy conditions, real and potential avalanches, highway and road closures, large numbers of residents and others stranded up and down the mountains, food and medicine shortages and both fires and explosions that apparently resulted as a consequence of damage to gas lines and meters from the weight burden and temperature shift from mounting snow.
San Bernardino County, California Division of Forestry, California Office of Emergency Services and California Transportation officials and employees were gamely scrambling to deal with the situation, but were hamstrung by a shortage of equipment and supplies to carry out their assistance efforts and too few arctic condition-capable vehicles to allow them to reach scores of remote locations where the problems were most prevalent.
From the remote and safe position down the mountain the Sentinel is monitoring and reporting from, it is difficult to say which area is hardest hit, but it appears that Twin Peaks, both the county and city areas of Big Bear, Crestline, Cedarpines Park, Valley of Enchantment and Mt. Baldy were dealing with the most onerous circumstances on the ground.
There were a rash of fire reports this week, some inexplicable, at various locations across the eastern mountaintop, with a concentration of such incidents around Lake Arrowhead. The attributions of cause for these were conflicting, as was the official direction with regard to preventing them. Officials said that at least some of the fires may have been related to natural gas or propane leaks. In at least two cases and possibly four, there were explosions that preceded or accompanied the fires. There were reports, as well, of the concentrated artificial odoriferant used to alert consumers of the presence of gas, which in its natural state is odorless. Word was going around that the gas lines present in some locations had been impinged by the freezing ground or the weight of the snow, resulting in gas leaks. The Southern California Gas Company, however, downplayed that, indicating that the excessive snow should not have impacted the integrity of the gas lines. County officials, nonetheless, said that the fires all appeared to be in some fashion related to the snowstorm, and they did not rule out the possibility that the fires were a product of gas leaks, particularly as two of those fires are confirmed to have involved explosions.
“We’ve had more structure fires than normal in the mountains,” said San Bernardino County Fire Chief Dan Munsey. “We believe these are due to natural gas leaks. We’re working with investigators to determine the cause and origin.”
The county fire department has recommended that homeowners clean out their ventilation systems to prevent any obstructions that might lead to gas accumulating, and have said it would be a good idea for them to dig out the snow and ice around the gas pipes at the base of their homes and around the outside meters.
Some Mountain residents and those who were intent on providing them with relief expressed frustration over San Bernardino County officials’ refusal to allow roughly a half-dozen private entities and volunteer groups to utilize helicopters they had at the ready to fly in food, medicine, equipment and other goods that were in short supply, and to make an effort to reach people stranded in more remote areas of the Mountains where impassible roads likely mean rescuers will not be able to reach them until sometime next week, at the earliest.
While the road clearing equipment, scrapers and snowplows the county normally relies upon to maintain transit access across the mountains were put into action, a number of factors prevented that effort from being fully effective in several areas, particularly in those off the beaten track and along the narrower and lesser-traveled roads in more remote areas. A major issue in this regard was the depth of snow drifts, which in many instances completely covered and obscured vehicles parked along the side of roads, such that there were recurrent instances of the snowplows walloping them.
Moreover, according to San Bernardino County Fire Chief Dan Munsey, “The front-end plows we’re so used to using became ineffective.”
As of press time, there had been no major avalanches in the San Bernardino Mountains, though officials said there are areas where avalanche-ripe conditions exist. An avalanche on the San Gabriel Mountain side on the western end of the county closed Mt. Baldy Road.
At present, somewhat remarkably, there were no reports of deaths, although officials emphasized that the snow blanketing large swathes of territory in the mountains makes it difficult to say with definitude that there have been no fatalities.
An issue has been the challenge presented by the sheer weight of snow on the roofs of structures, particularly those that are flat.
Goodwin and Sons Market, the single grocery store in Crestline, was serving as a critical supplier of food to residents who were snowed in on the western side of the San Bernardino Mountains. While many of those who lived in the area were unable to drive to the store, some, many of them using backpacks, were able to trek as many as three to four miles on foot to retrieve supplies. Goodwin’s ownership had therefore made a special effort to restock on Tuesday by employing a semi-trailer pulled by a specially outfitted tractor to make its way up icy Highway 138. Late that day and evening, customers who shopped there were able to get fresh meat and produce and other staples, which were as a result of the delivery in plentiful supply. Word spread about the community of the food available at the market but on Wednesday, March 1, sometime between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., that portion of the store’s roof over the storeroom began to buckle under the weight of snow. The ownership, recognizing that it would be unsafe to allow customers to come into the store given the precarious state of the roof, undertook to remove those foodstuffs most likely to be in demand out of the store to be sold from beneath a roll-up in the parking lot. That effort had only been partially completed when the entire roof collapsed.
County fire personnel, augmented by firefighters with the California Division of Forestry and in some cases San Bernardino County Public Works Department employees and California National Guard soldiers assigned to rescue efforts, using ladders and at first makeshift devices and later specialized equipment designed for the task that had been brought in, began assisting residents in clearing the snow from their roofs, with a priority being given of those with level roofs rather than steep-angled ones.
Despite some major media outlets reporting that the mountain communities were under a near-state of martial law and that armed National Guard foot soldiers were present to prevent looting, the conditions were such that any scenario of civil disorder was unlikely or impossible. A substantial number of residents were at their homes and unable to drive away because of the road conditions, meaning there were few unattended properties to loot. Not only would looters be unable to easily access those locations by vehicle themselves, making a quick getaway would have been impossible as well.
On Wednesday, March 1, the board of supervisors in a specially-called meeting, confirmed County Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez’s declaration of a local emergency, expediting the provision of county resources, services and expenditures to render assistance as needed and ensure the health and welfare of the residents of the impacted areas during the emergency. That included endeavoring to give the public and first responders access to necessary infrastructure such as grocery stores, gas stations, utilities and public infrastructure.
The board found that there is substantial evidence that the current weather emergency, which it stated had begun on February 22, 2023, was an emergency pursuant to Public Contract Code section 22050, requiring immediate action to prevent or mitigate the loss or impairment of life, health, property, and essential public services, which would not permit the delay resulting from a formal competitive solicitation of bids to procure construction services for projects necessary to prevent or address the effects of the storm. In accordance with that finding, the board approved a resolution authorizing the county purchasing agent, subject to Chief Executive Officer Hernandez’s approval, to issue purchase orders and/or contracts in a total amount not to exceed $20 million for any emergency construction and modifications related to the effects of the storm, and find that the issuance of those purchase orders and/or contracts is necessary to respond to the emergency.
At a press conference held this morning, Martha Guzman Hurtado, the chief communications officer for San Bernardino County, introduced Hernandez; Board Chairwoman Dawn Rowe, in whose Third District the San Bernardino Mountain communities are located, Sheriff Shannon Dicus; San Bernardino County Fire Chief Dan Munsey and the county public works director, Brendan Biggs.
Hernandez said “all of our mountain communities are affected by this disaster.”
Rowe said, “We sympathize with our residences and business. We know this is an exceptionally tough time for those who are still stranded on the mountain. Yesterday we were finally able to rescue many from their homes. However, many are still stranded. Residents who are still trapped, if you have food and water, please remain sheltered in place. If you are running low on supplies, we have a phone number for you to call – (909) 387-3911.”
Dicus said, “I want to reassure all the citizens on the mountain that law enforcement services are still continuing and those deputies are responding to those calls in need.”
With regard to questions “related to looting or things of that nature that may be going on in our mountains,” Dicus said, “I want to reassure all the citizens that is not occurring. Early on we had two reports of burglaries, and both of those suspects were taken into custody.”
Rowe, Dicus and Fire Chief Munsey indicated that a report in the Los Angeles Times that the California National Guard was patrolling the area was in error. Munsey said the National Guard had provided personnel to assist with the efforts to reach trapped residents and to dig the streets and properties out from underneath the snow drifts.
Dicus said the circumstances in many locations ranged from serious to dire. He said there had been 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, he said, the greatest number of assistance calls – 786 – came from Twin Peaks.
“These are the folks most affected by the deep snow falls,” he said.
Dicus said that his department had added approximately 15 personnel to the Twin Peaks Station to put his people where they can do the most good.
“We’ve contacted over 100 residents about transportation, particularly in the area of Cedar Pines Park, which was very harshly hit by snow and also in the Valley of Enchantment,” Dicus said. “We had 17 of our citizens that wanted to be removed. They just did not have the supplies to be able to sustain themselves as the clearing efforts continued.”
Wrightwood, Dicus said, had 24 calls for service.
In Wrightwood, which is on the north side of the San Gabriel Mountains and therefore subject to the least degree of cold moderation from the sun, weather conditions were every bit as bad as in the San Bernardino Mountains or on the south side of the San Gabriels, in Mt. Baldy. Still, because Wrightwood deals with such frigid conditions on a yearly basis and has adequate equipment in place, the challenges there were not as pronounced as in other places.
The county’s first responders had problems with transportation in the Arctic environment and lacked proper vehicles, Dicus and Munsey acknowledged.
“As the roads are being plowed, we’re not always able to take fire engines,” Munsey said. “To access emergencies, we deployed eight Snow Cats across the mountaintops. Those Snow Cats are those tracked vehicles, and when they can use them, they do, but there are times when they have to walk into those emergencies. Firefighters are responding to structure fires on these track vehicles, not with pumps, not with fire engines. They’re literally showing up with shovels and with hoses. They dig out the fire hydrants. They connect to the municipal water system, which has been well-maintained. We only have eight Snow Cats. We have plenty more on order.
“We have to prioritize these calls for services,” Munsey said. “Every single call is being responded to. We’re not able to respond to every call at once. In California, we’re used to a five minute, maybe in our mountains a 15-minute response time. That is not happening right now. Our Emergency Medical Response calls for service continue to be robust. As our residents don’t have access to normal doctors’ appointments, they are running out of medication or the emergency room is closed, it puts an impact on the 9-1-1 system. We are using the Snow Cats to get to these patients and transport them to our waiting ambulances that are on the road. Our ambulances are using tire chains to get down the hill, where they’re meeting another ambulance that has no tire chains to speed up patient transportation.”
Dicus said, “We were able to use those Snow Cats and remove them [residents under duress from the blizzard] from the mountain. Deputies continue to work with the fire department in four Snow Cats and we’re also receiving additional Snow Cats coming to our area. 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.”
Despite the energetic and for the most part well-coordinated response of the county’s public safety officials in conjunction with manpower and resources provided by the state, it was and remains the perception of some residents that county officials were not being sensitive enough and were not acting with sufficient urgency to the circumstance.
In particular, those residents have pointed to county officials spurning offers to provide assistance that the county because of logistical limitations could not provide.
Those offers of help came from volunteers and both San Bernardino County and Los Angeles County residents who had organized an impromptu food gathering effort augmented with stand-by supplies emergency response groups and survivalist networks already had on hand. They had contacted 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. The pilots with CalDart are licensed, skilled and trained in making emergency landings of helicopters and the craft are well-maintained.
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 near that facility’s helipad.
Volunteers and mountain residents were critical of Sheriff Dicus and the sheriff’s department for curtailing the effort.
The sheriff’s department said that federal and state law pertaining to declared disaster zones prohibited civilian aircraft from flights in areas of danger.
This prompted some residents to observe that there was less than stellar planning for contingencies such as what those living in the mountains are experiencing and that public safety officials had failed to make arrangement with regard to emergency operations, including obtaining clearance or waivers for such entities as CalDART to participate or otherwise having in place the capability to use the sheriff’s department’s considerable helicopter fleet to make those deliveries.
San Bernardino officials came in for some criticism because of the fashion in which the roads remained impassable and the sheriff’s department was discouraging residents’ attempts to make unaccompanied or unescorted trips either up the mountain or down the mountain, even in those cases where the residents had four-wheel drive vehicles and wheels outfitted with snow chains.
The sheriff’s department in concert with the county public works was conducting occasional convoys of the vehicles up the mountain. Subsequently, with food supplies to the San Bernardino Mountain communities running thin, coordinated efforts were made to escort Stater Brothers Market semi-trucks to Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead.
At this morning’s press conference, Dicus made comments with regard to the food convoys that seemed aimed at allaying the anger of residents who were critical of the department having curtailed CalDart’s supply efforts.
“Deputies assisted with several convoys in the last couple of days with food and supplies to the local grocery stores up there,” Sheriff Dicus said. “Today, we’ve scheduled a number of food deliveries going into the Lake Arrowhead area in concert with Stater Brothers and we’ll be moving those food deliveries in convoy up there to resupply the Stater Brothers up in Lake Arrowhead. I’ve flown over those areas. I’ve checked the parking lots. They’re clear. We’re able to move trucks and access those places and we’re making sure we’re getting necessary food supplies to the Big Bear area and fuel supplies.”
Just before the Sentinel’s deadline, there was further response from the sheriff’s department, saying it would step up efforts to truck supplies to the mountain communities.
Munsey said the fire department and the sheriff’s department had “pre-put” equipment and supplies in place in anticipation of the storm, but that 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. We were awarded that. The State Office of Emergency Services gave us additional dollars to up staff. There’s one thing we can’t control. We can’t control the weather. 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.”
Munsey continued, “The second thing we can’t control is the preparedness level of our citizenry. While we get out there and we educate folks, they need to be prepared in the event of an emergency, especially when they are living in outlying communities. We found out that many of our citizens were not prepared. This put additional strains on the system.”
Munsey reposed a question of him that had been asked during the press conference as “Where can we be better prepared in the future?”
“When it comes to roads and clearing the roads, I think our men and women learned some valuable lessons,” he said. “I would say that our men and women that work for the County of San Bernardino and public works, CalTrans… did their darnedest. They were out there 24 hours a day, just like our firefighters. They were plowing the roads. Unfortunately, the snow came down so quickly and stacked up so quickly, that those front-end plows that we’re so used to using on a routine basis became ineffective. What we found out is you truly need some specialized equipment when you have blizzards coming. The warning we had for the blizzard wasn’t weeks. We only knew 24 hours to 36 hours [ahead of time] that there was a strong potential that this was going to occur and even if the county had gone out and leased the equipment, it would not have been here in time to keep our roads clean. So now we’re left with getting specialized equipment. We can always do better. We need better plans when it comes to severe blizzards. We need to have leases set up that allow us to get the equipment quicker. We need to have agreements set up to allow private contractors to come in. At the end of the day, we’re not going to be able to support the immense population that in some cases are just not prepared for this weather event. Despite our best efforts, we’re lagging behind in meeting their expectations.”
Dicus told the mountain residents that they need to hang in there and have faith.
“You think that you may not see snowplows and a number of other things,” Dicus said. “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.”
People need act sensibly as well, Dicus said, and not make things worse for themselves and increase the risk of those who are responding with assistance.
“In the Pilot Rock area, we had to rescue a four wheel-drive vehicle that was trying to traverse what we call the backside going into Lake Arrowhead when they got stuck in that effort,” he said, saying that if the road conditions haven’t been cleared in a given area, people there should hunker down in place until responders reach them.
Mark Gutglueck

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