San Bernardino County officials acknowledged 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 dwindling food supplies.
Snow plows that normally clear mountain roads have been ineffective and now crews are working around the clock to reach communities still snowbound as of Friday.
“When it comes to clearing the roads, I’d say we’ve learned some valuable lessons,” San Bernardino County Fire Chief Dan Munsey said at a joint news conference with state and local officials.
“Unfortunately, the snow fell so fast and piled up so quickly that the front-end plows we were so accustomed to routinely using were no longer effective.”
For the past week, historic levels of snow have blanketed the San Bernardino Mountains. Running Springs received 12 feet, Big Bear Lake 11 feet and Lake Arrowhead just over 9 feet, according to the National Weather Service.
Emergency services said they did not have the right type of equipment to respond to a blizzard of this size and scope.
“The warning we had for the blizzard wasn’t for weeks. We only knew for 24 to 36 hours that there was great potential for this to happen,” Munsey said, adding that the county would not have been able to receive the necessary equipment on such short notice.
Now road workers are using the tools at their disposal, including front loaders and hand shovels, to clear snow banks that are 10 feet high in some areas.
Residents are increasingly outraged by the inability to plow roads, leaving them stranded and unable to even get supplies.
San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus addressed the frustration at the press conference. He spoke directly to residents in Lake Arrowhead during his update.
“We’re going to dig you out and we’re coming,” Dicus said. “We are making huge progress. I saw this from the air yesterday. The roads are cleared. There are snowplows everywhere and you will soon see direct lighting coming to your door.
Residents have felt stranded for days, unsure when help will arrive.
Katie Mead, 43, considers herself one of the “lucky ones” in Lake Arrowhead — her street has been plowed at least once and she’s gotten less snow than some neighbors because she lives on the “sunny side” of the lake. said.
During a break in the weather on Sunday, she delivered groceries to a family staying at her Airbnb home, dug out the snow and drove 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 walked miles in the snow to buy groceries.
Her street was plowed up on Sunday night, but about three feet of snow has accumulated since then.
“It feels like they didn’t start soon enough,” Mead said. “They have been waiting for the snow to build up to the point where our normal plows can’t handle it (and) we have to wait for heavy equipment to arrive. They literally have to move snow shovel load by shovel load and dump it somewhere else. There is so much snow.”
Mead was one of several residents who tuned in to one on Thursday afternoon town hall via live stream hosted by Dawn Rowe, the San Bernardino County Supervisor representing most of the hardest hit areas in the mountains. County officials assured residents they have been working with nonprofits to create distribution points in communities where food and other supplies are running out, noting that some supermarket parking lots in Big Bear and surrounding areas had been cleared of snow.
However, Mead pointed out in the comments on the video that some people can’t get to those distribution points.
“How is an elderly person supposed to walk even a block to a distribution center in four feet of snow?” she asked.
“Our main problem is they bring in the National Guard and bring supplies up the mountain, but we’re all snowed in,” she said in an interview. “Unless you happen to be near the area where they do distribution, it’s irrelevant.”
Members of the California National Guard’s Rattlesnake Joint Task Force, who typically work with wilderness fire crews, were sent to Lake Arrowhead this week after Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for San Bernardino and 12 other counties.
Lon Verstuyft tries to get help for his friends trapped in his cabin in Lake Arrowhead. The roads around the hut are snowed in and Verstuyft does not know when they will be cleared.
There were seven people in his cabin and two were taken away by an ambulance that had to make its way to the group, Verstuyft said.
“They took a diabetic and an 80-year-old person who wasn’t doing well in the cold,” he said. “But they don’t take the rest because the ambulance said they only take it in case of a medical emergency.”
The group was running low on food last week, but Verstuyft managed to contact a local who brought them groceries before the latest storm hit over the weekend. Now he is afraid that they will run out of food again.
“I can’t get a clear answer from the county about what’s going to happen,” he said. “If I could get some information about the roads, I would drive there myself.”
Mountains of snow still block the roads. Even firefighters find it difficult to respond to medical calls and fires. Firefighters in Blue Jay, Crestline and Lake Arrowhead respond to calls with snowcats — snowmobiles they usually deploy for backcountry rescues.
According to the San Bernardino County Fire Department, crews had to lug their equipment through snow and dig to access fire hydrants, wasting valuable time responding to emergencies.
At least two people were injured in a house fire in the community of Blue Jay, about a mile from Lake Arrowhead Village, on Wednesday afternoon.
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 are a lot of variables and a lot going on with 10 feet of snow being dumped on our homes and communities,” he said. “We’re seeing structural instability, we’re seeing utility issues, downed power lines, trees against power lines, and we had over 70 reports of gas leaks in the area.”
The mountains have seen more structure fires than usual, Fire Chief Munsey said at the news conference.
“We think these are due to natural gas leaks,” he said. “In the last 48 hours we have 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 he hadn’t slept in over four days.”
After multiple reported explosions, emergency services are urging residents to clear the snow around their gas meters and fire hydrants.
In addition to the fires, homes and businesses also collapsed under the weight of the heavy snowfall.
Goodwin & Son’s Market in Crestline was red tagged after its roof collapsed. The family business said there is still food, but it is not safe for anyone to enter.
“We would prefer to hand out the food, but are currently waiting for a structural engineer and the mechanic to go up the mountain this morning to meet us,” the store wrote. a Facebook message Thursday.
Aerial images from KNBC-TV Channel 4 showed that most of the building had collapsed under the snow, with only the perimeter walls standing. Crestline has received more than eight feet of snow in the past week.
Supervisor Rowe, together with firefighters, assessed the damage at Goodwin & Son’s on Thursday.
“We are working hand-in-hand with the owners to rebuild as quickly as possible,” she wrote a statement on social media. “The Unified Command is working on a location to arrange food and supplies for residents as soon as possible.”
Another market in Blue Jay, Jensen’s Foods, also received a red tag due to a compromised roof, the market wrote in an Instagram post on 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 two 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 posting photos of a fire on her street on Facebook.
“I knew right away it was her street,” said Simons.
White is staying with relatives outside Lake Arrowhead, but she’s determined to return.
“She plans to rebuild when she can,” Simons said. “She loves it here and she wants to come back.”