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Rain accelerates snowmelt after winter storms, a mixed bag for buried mountain towns

Recent storms in the San Bernardino Mountains brought both relief, melting much of the snow that had stranded some residents for weeks, and unrest, triggering minor flooding and rock slides.

In Lake Arrowhead, Linda Knorr and her husband had been trapped inside their home for about a week and had to shovel several feet of snow from their property.

They were some of the many snowed in by a series of snowstorms earlier this month, leaving some mountain residents without reliable access to food, supplies and medicine.

Plowing the steep roads and streets that wind through the communities of Crestline and Lake Arrowhead was hard work. Some residents were effectively entombed in their homes due to impassable roads or towering snow berms blocking their driveways.

The Knorrs’ street was once cleaned during winter snowstorms, he said. Then rain from this week’s atmospheric river storm quickly melted much of what was left.

“We had several inches of rain,” said Knorr, 54. “There’s more coming next week though, and maybe some snow.”

Up to 4.3 inches of rain had fallen on the slopes of the San Bernardino County mountains by Wednesday morning, according to the National Weather Service, and the storm had mostly cleared by Thursday. Officials said there were no major problems due to the rains, despite concerns about melting of the heavy snow cover under the new rains.

San Bernardino County firefighters responded to two calls Tuesday night and early Wednesday about minor flooding at residences in Crestline and Twin Peaks, but neither required evacuation, department spokesman Eric Sherwin said.

Rockslides hit some roads, Sherwin said, but most of the fallen rocks were quickly cleared by crews, never completely closing the roads. The largest slide was along Highway 18 near Waterman Canyon Road, he said, though all were typical of storm conditions.

Runoff slowed a bit on Thursday, he said, adding that while a lot of snow was still melting, authorities didn’t see an abnormal buildup of water in the mountains.

Before the storms, residents were told to “prepare for flooding conditions,” and county staff worked to clear culverts and provide sandbags, County Chief Executive Leonard Hernandez said at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday.

Crews worked to ensure that “150 high-priority culverts were clear,” a task complicated by the fact that “many were hidden by massive snow berms,” ​​requiring crews to use mapping technology and old photos to find many of them, county officials said in a storm response update Wednesday.

Officials will continue to clear drainage roads and prepare for another storm that is expected to hit next week.

In Crestline, resident Aaron Creighton said there was almost a “little river running down the street” Wednesday, though much of the drainage infrastructure was recently upgraded and appeared to be holding up. The water was still flowing down the street on Thursday, he said, but not as much.

“There is so much melting so fast,” he said. “A few days ago I still had 5 feet of snow on my rig, and now I have about 6 inches left.”

Creighton’s first floor began flooding Wednesday and remained under about an inch of water, he said, but it took more than 24 hours for a plumber to respond because many people are dealing with damage from winter storms. The plumber discovered that his flooding was caused by a pipe that burst from the cold.

“I can’t pump fast enough with my little Shopvac,” said Creighton, editor and publisher of Crestline’s local newspaper, the Alpine Mountaineer News. “It’s completely underwater.”

Downstream from the mountains, snowmelt intensified by rain this week swelled streams, turning the Santa Ana River into a dangerously fast current.

At its peak Wednesday afternoon, approximately 11,500 cubic feet of water per second was flowing through the river. In the days before the storms, the flow of the river was below 1,000 cubic feet per second.

At the same time, the river’s water level peaked at nearly 6.5 feet, about 4 feet below the stage at which officials would have had to undertake mitigation efforts, according to the National Weather Service.

With most mountain roads reopened and a short break before another atmospheric river storm, the 12th of the rainy season, is forecast early next week, ski resorts and cities are bracing for a influx of visitors this weekend.

Knorr, a Lake Arrowhead resident, said he was surprised when Caltrans District 8 announced this week that all routes, with the exception of portions of Highway 18, were reopened to all drivers.

“When we have a small amount of snow, people go up and they’re not prepared, they don’t have the right tires, vehicles or chains,” he said. “They park on the side of the road and go sledding. It’s hard for our highway patrol and emergency personnel to handle the number of people coming here.”

At Big Bear Mountain Resort, employees are preparing for crowds to return to the slopes after the mountains were cut off to non-residents for the past few weeks following snow storms.

“We expect visitation to return to normal levels for this time of the season,” resort spokesman Justin Kanton said Thursday morning. “Looking out my window, the upper lot in Snow Summit is nearly full.”

The resort expects clear skies through the weekend with a small chance of showers Sunday afternoon, Kanton said.

“Condition-wise, it’s still amazing,” he added. “We’ve lost a little bit of snow to rain the last few days, but we’re still in the 75 to 100-inch range, which is phenomenal for this time of the season. Typically this time of year, we’re looking at the 1 to 3 foot range.”