At Least 13 Deaths In Mountains During Blizzard Of ’23

At least 13 people living in the San Bernardino Mountain Communities died during what is now referred to as the Blizzard of ‘23, an extreme weather event that lasted from February 22 until March 10, during which both the San Bernardino Mountains and San Bernardino National Forest/San Gorgonio Wilderness to the east and the San Gabriel and Angeles National Forest to the west were blanketed in snow drifts reaching or exceeding ten feet in depth.
While many of those who died were infirm or elderly, in most if not all of those 13 cases, the extreme cold, exposure and isolation which came about because of the weather were contributory causes to those deaths.
The 13 acknowledged deaths may not be the only fatalities that came about as a consequence of the severe winter storm. That quantification was made in the 2023 Mountain Storm Response Summary & After-Action Review completed by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department which was released earlier this month. In that report, the sheriff’s department states that the 13 deaths “in the San Bernardino Mountain Communities of Wrightwood, Big Bear, and the Twin Peaks” were reported during what the department called its “operational period,” which is roughly defined as falling between February 23, the day after the storm commenced and at which point the department began responding in earnest to the conditions, and March 16, at which point the county’s emergency operations center set up by the sheriff’s department and the county’s incident management team on February 28 was shut down. As such, it is possible other deaths occurred in the mountain communities during the storm that were not discovered or reported until after March 16.The precise degree to which inadequacies in the overall county response to the blizzard might have contributed to those deaths is unknown. Incomplete information available to the Sentinel gives an indication that there were such inadequacies and that they delayed the provision of assistance in several critically impacted areas of the mountain communities.
On February 15, the National Weather Service gave an indication that a major weather front was going to converge on Southern California beginning as early as February 21.
Under the protocol specified in the county’s comprehensive emergency management program for weather related issues – the Flood Areas Safety Task Force Plan, known by its acronym FAST – upon learning that a major weather-related event is in the offing, the head of the county office of emergency services and the county chief executive officer, armed with information from the National Weather Service, is to convene a conference call with the sheriff, county fire chief, county public works director, Caltrans regional representative, California Office of Emergency Services representative, local CHP commander, relevant city managers and utility company representatives to size up the anticipated circumstance and begin formulating a planned action of response. Within 24 hours those entities are to reconvene to make a tentative outline of the response, according to the FAST plan, whereupon the county chief executive officer applies for authorization from the board of supervisors to begin acquiring equipment, supplies, manpower etc. to initiate the response. An emergency meeting of the board of supervisors is then supposed to be convened, probably within 24 hours, to give the county chief executive officer that spending authorization.
Despite those specified actions and the National Weather Service warning, neither then-County Chief Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez nor his appointee as the head of the San Bernardino County Office of Emergency Services, Deputy County Executive Officer Daniel Muñoz, instituted the conference call in a timely fashion, that is by February 16 or 17, as was indicated by the circumstance.
The mountain blizzard touched down February 22, 2023. The storm was so intense that more than 30,000 residents of the San Bernardino Mountain communities found themselves snowed in and trapped, without access to food, fuel, supplies or medicine or, alternately, caught down the mountain and unable to return to their homes.
The board of supervisors, which held a regularly scheduled meeting on February 28, did not conduct an emergency meeting relating to the blizzard until March 1. The media were not alerted to the emergency meeting pertaining to the blizzard that took place on March 1 at 2:45 p.m. until after 1:30 p.m. on March 1.
At that meeting, the board of supervisors confirmed Hernandez’s proclamation of a local emergency, expediting the provision of county resources, services and expenditures to render assistance as needed to relieve mountain residents impacted, including endeavoring to give the public and first responders access to necessary resources such as grocery stores, gas stations, utilities and public infrastructure. The board of supervisors proclaimed the conditions in the mountains, which it marked as having commenced on February 22, 2023, constituted an emergency pursuant to Public Contract Code section 22050, requiring immediate action to prevent or mitigate the loss or impairment of life, and provide 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 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.
Nevertheless, the previous day, on February 28, at the board’s regularly scheduled meeting, approval was given for Supervisors Hagman and Rowe, along with Hernandez, Williams, County Economic Development Director Derek Armstrong and four others to travel to the greater Seoul area in South Korea and Tokyo, Japan between April 15, 2023 and April 22, 2023 to represent San Bernardino County for the purposes of a trade and investment mission, and continue to strengthen relationships established as a result of the previously signed and renewed Memorandum of Understanding with the Incheon Free Economic Zone Authority. Despite requests that the mission be postponed because of the uncertainty that the county faced over the ongoing storm, the board of supervisors consented to appropriating $5,829 to provide for travel and lodging for each of the nine people scheduled to make the trip along with up to $30,000 toward other costs of the trade mission.
The following day, March 1, there was a less than 24-hour respite in the storm conditions in the San Bernardino Mountains, the only point in the 17-day period between February 22 and March 10 that snow was not falling accompanied by medium to heavy winds. In addition to conducting the specially-called meeting that, Hernandez and Rowe utilized a sheriff’s department helicopter to bypass the closed roads into the San Bernardino Mountains and survey the storm conditions.
The delay in holding the conference of responsible responding entities by at least ten days resulted in what residents of the mountain community’s have almost universally characterized as a lackluster response to the nearly two-and-one-half-week-long blizzard, leaving roads impassable for most of that time, resulting in food, fuel and medicine shortages as well as deaths.
According to the sheriff’s department, within which and out of which the county coroner’s office operates, only one of the deaths referenced in the 2023 Mountain Storm Response Summary & After-Action Review was directly storm related. Four of the 13 deaths were of individuals who were either on hospice care or under doctor’s care at a medical facility in the mountains. The coroner’s office investigated the other nine deaths.
A 39-year-old woman who died on February 26 in the emergency room at Bear Valley Community Hospital after being struck by a vehicle in Fawnskin.
On February 28, a 65-year-old woman, with no known medical history who had complained of flu-like symptoms, died in her home in the 1300 block of Irene Street in Wrightwood.
On March 2, a 77-year-old woman died at her home in the 24200 block of Zell Court in Crestline. Her death was attributed to cardiopulmonary arrest due to coronary artery disease and tobacco use dependence, with associated conditions of alcohol dependency, atrial fibrillation and hypertension.
On March 3, a 77-year-old man with no medical history was discovered during a welfare check at his home in the 23100 block of Sycamore Lane in Valley of Enchantment. He was last known to be alive on February 28. His death was potentially brought on by his lack of access to diabetes medication.
On March 3, a 33-year-old man known to be a chronic alcoholic with hypertensive cardiovascular disease died at his home in the 32700 block of Willow Lane in Arrowbear.
On March 3, a 62 year-old man suffering from chronic alcoholism was found dead during a welfare check at his home in the 100 block of Barker Boulevard in Big Bear City. He was last known to be alive on February 19.
On March 6, in the 560 block of Summit Boulevard in Big Bear Lake, a 46 year-old woman with an extensive mental health history was found dead during a welfare check. A toxicology screening indicated the presence of acetone, but the coroner’s office said it was “unknown if that will be related to the cause of death.”
On March 6, a 93-year-old woman with a significant medical history including lympohcytic leukemia was found dead at her home in the 23900 block of Inspiration Road in Crestline. The cause of death was determined to be aortic stenosis due to hyperlipidemia.
On March 8, a 68-year-old man with a well documented medical history was found dead at his home in the 22000 block of Crest Forest Drive in Crestline. His cause of death was attributed to, according to the coroner’s office, “chronic methamphetamine abuse over a period of years. Contributing to the death was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, more commonly known as emphysema.”
In April, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency came to San Bernardino County and went into the San Bernardino Mountains for an initial assessment of the disaster. Those federal officials returned to the county for discussions with top county officials during the week of April 15-22, but Rowe, the chairwoman of the board of supervisors and the representative of the Third District, which encompasses the mountain communities devastated by blizzard together with Supervisor Hagman, Hernandez and Williams, who as the county’s chief of administration had direct authority over the San Bernardino County Office of Emergency Services, were out of the county, indeed, out of country.
There is no indication of when, if at all, the conference call involving the head of the county office of emergency services and the county chief executive officer, the sheriff, county fire chief, county public works director, Caltrans regional representative, California Office of Emergency Services representative, local CHP commander, relevant city managers and utility company representatives took place. On March 22, the Sentinel filed a request under the California Public Records Act for access to the communications that took place between communications between Hernandez and Muñoz from January 15, 2023 until March 22, 2023. Despite repeated assurances that those communications would be turned over, the county has yet to produce them.
On August 8, Hernandez was due to return from a vacation he had initiated in July, but the board of supervisors subjected him to an involuntary extension of that vacation leave on that day. Two days later, on August 10, Hernandez signed a severance agreement with the county in which he agreed to resign as county CEO effective August 18. In signing that severance agreement, Hernandez executed a confidentiality clause that imposes a gag order on him and the county which prevents either party from publicly disclosing what issues led up to his resignation.

Leave a Reply