A volunteer helicopter operation transporting much-needed supplies to besieged communities in the San Bernardino Mountains was shut down by authorities as desperation among residents continued to grow Saturday in the wake of storms that dumped historic amounts of snow.
Four helicopters with CalDARTa nonprofit organization that has coordinated air disaster relief throughout California had partnered with residents to deliver food, medicine and other supplies in perfect flying conditions on Friday.
But the effort was halted early Friday afternoon by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department over safety concerns. The department said in a statement that a helicopter was attempting to land in a parking lot filled with people waiting for supplies.
“The county is doing nothing to help the people here,” said Lisa Griggs, a Blue Jay resident who was one of dozens of volunteers who delivered food, baby food and shovels that were flown in. “We are in a difficult situation.”
She and other residents are increasingly outraged by officials’ failure to clear snow from roads, leaving them stranded for more than a week and unable to get basic necessities. San Bernardino County officials have acknowledged that they were unprepared for the back-to-back storms that created epic blizzards.
“It’s a shame because as locals, we knew the county and state were unable to meet the demands,” said Zach Oliver, 37, a Crestline resident who helped organize the air operation.
Governor Gavin Newsom on Wednesday declared a state of emergency for San Bernardino County and a dozen other counties hit by severe storms, a move designed to free up state resources like the National Guard to aid in response efforts.
On Saturday, desperate residents of San Bernardino County wondered when National Guard troops would arrive. Residents said hundreds of people lined up for food, dog food and firewood at community distribution events in recent days. Many of them left empty-handed, according to residents who spoke to The Times.
Paul Marshall, 65, president of CalDART and a licensed pilot, said the Sheriff’s Department told the organization Saturday it could resume operations, but added that flying conditions were not safe due to high winds and low cloud cover.
James Brotherton, a National Weather Services meteorologist, said on Saturday it is expected to be cloudy all weekend, with a 20% chance of snow flurries. Temperatures will remain in the teens and wind gusts of up to 40 mph are likely in the mountain regions, he said.
“That can certainly be a problem for helicopters,” Brotherton said. “The wind will be quite strong.”
The weather conditions were especially frustrating for Ronald Lovick, 72, a retired law enforcement pilot who helped pilot one of the helicopters that had been delivering supplies for CalDART since Thursday. Conditions, he said, were ideal for air operations.
“A sheriff’s captain decided it was more important to play legal games,” Lovic said. “It’s tragic.”
Griggs loaded up her all-drive SUV with supplies on Friday and was heading to Cedar Glen east of Lake Arrowhead. While speeding along the Rim of the World Highway with her 16-year-old son, he had an epileptic seizure.
She said she started honking at a California Highway Patrol cruiser right in front of her. The officer stopped and called medical teams, who responded to help her son. Then early Saturday, she said, her neighbor had to be rescued by firefighters after his roof collapsed from the weight of the snow that buried his property.
“I feel everything I see so deeply,” she said, adding that the overall experience has left her “heartbroken.”
The state got involved after residents began calling Newsom’s office and the Office of Emergency Services and seeking help via social media, said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the state’s Office of Emergency Services.
“It is highly unusual for Californians to directly seek help in times of crisis,” Ferguson said. “It was certainly a sign that this was a dangerous event happening in San Bernardino County.”
About three dozen high-clearance trucks and crews from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection are also on site to support search and rescue efforts. OES personnel assist with logistics and assist the San Bernardino County Emergency Operations Center.
Crestline resident Oliver said Saturday that Cal Fire had delivered more than two dozen pallets of food, which local volunteers were distributing to neighbors stranded in their homes.
“There are still people trapped in their homes without food or medicine,” he said. “We were cut off from the world. We had to get food here.”
Residents said two of the three main supermarkets in the area had closed after their roofs were damaged by the weight of accumulated snow. Access to the third store in Lake Arrowhead was compromised by multiple leaking gas lines, according to residents.
Crestline resident Max Strawn, 30, was one of dozens of community volunteers who volunteered to help their neighbors.
He said he waded through waist-deep snow to deliver boxes of groceries to people with disabilities and elderly residents in the area.
“These are just the ones we know about,” he said. “I know there are people we miss.”
He and other residents had heard that the National Guard might come to help and wondered when that would happen.
“We really hope the National Guard will help us,” Strawn said. “We expected it, but we’re not getting it.”
Dawn Diggle, 42, who lives in Crestline’s Valley of Enchantment, said the streets in her neighborhood were finally cleared on Saturday of about six feet of snow that had been accumulating for more than a week.
On Friday, about 1,000 people came to a store for food packages that never arrived.
“Everyone left empty-handed,” said Diggle. “All this bureaucracy really slows things down.”
The situation had improved by Saturday, she said, adding that she and other volunteers had distributed boxes of milk, pasta, beans, rice and canned goods that had arrived from the state to about 500 people. She said a restaurant also delivered cheeses, fresh peppers and deli meats that she and other volunteers distributed in freezer bags for residents.
“Everyone is desperate,” she said.
Times staff writer Benjamin Oreskes contributed to this report.