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Deaths climb to 13 after snowstorms in San Bernardino

More than a dozen people have died in San Bernardino County’s mountain communities from back-to-back blizzards that dumped record amounts of snow, more than 100 inches in some places, leaving many stranded in their homes for two weeks. county officials said.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said Thursday it had responded to 13 deaths since Feb. 23, though investigators determined only one had a “direct correlation to weather,” according to a report. Press release. That person died at a hospital after a car accident during the storm.

Four were people who died at a hospital or were in hospice, authorities said, and therefore will not be investigated. The rest are being investigated by the Sheriff’s Department’s forensic division.

“The preliminary information we have at this time is that the circumstances observed at the scenes were not presented as weather related,” according to an agency statement. “Many of the deceased had significant medical histories or chronic conditions.”

Sheriff’s officials released limited information about the nine deaths not related to hospitals or hospice care and reiterated that investigators do not believe weather or a lack of food or resources contributed to any, calling them “natural.” However, the cause of death has not been determined in any of them.

But residents of mountain communities who spoke to The Times pushed back against that idea, saying many were left stranded without food, electricity, heat and medicine for days, if not weeks, extremely stressful conditions that they believe contributed to, if not caused, the victims.

Liberty Guerrero, a Crestline resident, said she knows of three people, all elderly, who died in the past week. She said that the nearby community of Cedarpines Park “is a great senior community. They live on the moors, and no one has gone there yet.

“They are going to find more (dead),” Guerrero said.

The first death, which sheriff’s officials said had a “direct correlation to the weather,” was a 39-year-old woman killed on February 26 after being struck by a vehicle in Fawnskin, authorities said. That incident coincides with the story of Barbie Hughes, whose family said she died while trying to help someone trapped in the snow.

Two days later, as the second of two brutal snowstorms began to wane, a 65-year-old woman living on Irene Street in Wrightwood was found dead by a neighbor, according to the Sheriff’s Department. While she had no known medical problems, sheriff’s officials said she had complained of “flu-like symptoms.” The last time she was known to be alive was the day before.

On March 2, a 77-year-old woman was found dead by the owner at Zell Court in Crestline. Her landlord last saw her the week before, deputies said. The woman had a “documented medical history,” though no details were provided.

On March 3, about a week after the blizzards began, agents found two men dead during separate welfare checks.

Deputies went to see a 77-year-old man on Sycamore Lane in Crestline’s Valley of Enchantment neighborhood after the family was unable to locate him. When they arrived, they “could not get to the residence,” and a neighbor forced their way in and found the man dead, authorities said.

It was only with “advanced equipment” that officers were able to remove the man’s body. While officials acknowledged that the weather contributed to the challenge of reaching the residence, they did not state the conditions that led to the man’s death.

The other man was found in Big Bear Lake on Barker Boulevard, and while his medical history was unknown, authorities said the 62-year-old had recently filed “complaints of feeling ill and taking over-the-counter medications.”

That same day, the family found a 33-year-old relative dead in his room in Arrowbear. He had been alive the night before, they said, and he only had “limited medical conditions,” which were not specified.

On Monday, Michelle Hake’s sister was found dead in Big Bear after her family called for a welfare check when her sister was unresponsive. She said her 46-year-old sister needed medical attention during the storms, but her family didn’t realize how urgent she had become. Hake said she is convinced that if access had not been limited due to storms, her sister would not have died.

That same day, a 93-year-old woman identified by neighbors and family as Elinor “Dolly” Avenatti was found dead at her home on Inspiration Road in Crestline by a neighbor. Those who knew her said she was a fixture in the community and that she was still very active, but authorities said she had a “diagnosed medical history,” though details were not shared with The Times.

Rhea-Frances Tetley, who lived across the street from Avenatti, said her street was without power for six days, during which Avenatti had been unable to leave her home because of snow. Although neighbors delivered food and checked on her, Tetley worries that the extreme conditions took a toll on the otherwise vivacious woman.

On Wednesday, a 68-year-old man who neighbors said had been ill for a while was found dead at his home on Crest Forest Drive in Crestline. Neighbors said firefighters had to dig up snow for at least 30 minutes to get to his house.

And residents fear more bodies will be found.

Megan Vasquez, a Crestline resident, said that while the region has many elderly residents and people with medical problems, she doesn’t think they all died of natural causes.

“It could have been a person with severe diabetes whose blood sugar went out of control. Is it a natural death or did the storms contribute to it? she asked.

Vasquez went door to door Thursday looking for houses with no footprints or cars buried under snow. He found a 90-year-old woman without food at her home who had recently undergone hip surgery.

“She was covered in bruises, with eyes as big as saucers,” Vasquez said. “What would have happened to her if I hadn’t gotten there?

“There are going to be a lot more than 13 because we haven’t gotten everyone out yet,” he said.