Mountain communities in SoCal continue to clear snow from rare blizzard, others are trapped weeks later
LAKE ARROWHEAD, Calif. – A winter wonderland just before spring has ravaged most parts of the United States in recent weeks, from the northeast of the northeast to a rare blizzard in southern California.
In the San Bernardino Mountains, where residents are used to wildfires not blizzards, some are still trapped and others are left homeless for three weeks as up to nearly 10 feet of snow have shelled homes, businesses and roads. At least 13 people died. And now all that’s left is a mess of slush and slow melting snow.
The last time the area received such heavy snowfall was in 1991 during the “March Miracle,” when up to six feet of snow fell.
“We don’t get blizzard warnings in this area. I wouldn’t even say it happens infrequently,” said Eric Sherwin, public information officer for the San Bernardino Fire Department.
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San Bernardino County, the largest in the United States, spanning more than 20,000 square feet, hasn’t been on a blizzard warning in decades.
“This storm was very different. We are seeing record snowfall in many of these communities so life has pretty much come to a standstill,” Sherwin said.
About 15 miles east of the communities hardest hit by this year’s storm is Big Bear Valley. Residents were buried under more than five feet of snow in late January 2010. From the first storms of the winter season in November 2009 until March 2010, this area received almost nine and a half feet of snow. In comparison, mountain communities in the San Bernardino National Forest were trapped in the same amount of snow in a matter of days.
A Crestline, California woman and her husband woke up to a white wall surrounding their home.
“We had two gazebos on our decks that had just been blown to pieces on top of all our patio furniture, and a ring of fire and all kinds of things destroyed everything. That sound really got us going. I I thought, Oh my God, what’s next? What’s going to happen next?” said Paige Renfro. “At that time, our roof had at least four feet on it, and it’s a big house with lots of roof space.”
She couldn’t even see the house across from hers a week ago.
She and her husband lived in Crestline, Calif., for 38 years in the San Bernardino Mountains, living in their “treetops.” Their house, which sits on a steep slope, was undamaged, but not everyone was so lucky.
Paige said that with a generator, food and even their snow plow, the people of Renfro have become a “command post”.
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“We have a couple of girls who live two doors down, and they and their cats couldn’t get out for help…They put a little sign in their window that said ‘help us trapped,'” Renfro said. And the problem was that we couldn’t see the sign because the galleries were higher. So eventually we were digging, and my husband looked and saw this sign and they dug them up.”
The storm affected an area 52 miles from end to end and the San Bernardino County Fire Department received more than 1,800 calls.
They maintain a fleet of eight tankettes equipped with firefighting equipment, the largest fleet in the region. With “complete loss of road structures”, snowcats were the only vehicles used during the worst icy roads.
“Because of that, we haven’t had a single person who couldn’t call 911. And that’s in large part thanks to the Snow Cats,” Sherwin said.
They have returned to traditional fire engines and ambulances in recent days as the snow melted. In the days following the storm, they used ATVs on the ground and fireboats on the lakes.
Authorities are still assessing the damage, but residents must rebuild destroyed homes, dig up their submerged cars and make sure everyone has made it out successfully. Most of the damage was to carports, sheds, garages and other structures not built to withstand the weight of several feet of snow.
Michael Rachau is originally from Crestline but currently lives in Topanga Beach, CA. He broke his ribs while visiting, and now he’s dealing with the consequences at a friend’s house.
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“You know, weeks later it’s snowing. I haven’t seen this much snow since I’ve been living here,” Rachau said.
Goodwin’s, one of the only grocery stores serving the communities of Lake Arrowhead and Crestline, is still closed after snow damaged property. It has been open since 1946.
“It takes about five minutes to fetch bread or fetch milk, and we’ll miss it for a while,” Renfro said. “They (the owners) have a very positive attitude towards it, so it made me feel better to hear them being so positive. They’re not giving up. They’re going to rebuild. And we need a grocery store here. . “
The nearest Walmart is about 17 miles away – and inaccessible during the storm.
With the help of several agencies, as far south as San Diego and as far north as Santa Barbara, the county has cleared most of its county and state roads.
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But some in the more remote areas of the mountains, like the Renfros, live on private roads that the county is not responsible for clearing snow. If they are not plowed, the power companies cannot access them. Their neighbors were without electricity for nine days.
“The roads below us were a web of darkness,” she said. “There was no way they were going out, and they had no electricity, so it was cold, dark and no communication.”
She compares it to the Titanic.
“After the rowboats left, (they) waited for the ship to sink, then they came in to try to save people. They looked around and said, ‘We’ve waited too long,'” he said. said Renfro. “And I believe it because 13 people died here.”
She says officials would have to intervene regardless because their roads are private, albeit paved, which she and her husband paid for out of pocket for the neighborhood.
“I’m not in the county by any means. I think they followed their protocol,” Renfro said. “Clearing a path to safety is paramount. That should actually trump any protocols that the county or anybody else has in place during a disaster. That should actually be the thing main. And I’m sure it was, but I think oblivion few of us didn’t feel that way.”
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She says she would like to see an amendment to change the approach to who is responsible for clearing snow from private roads during a natural disaster.
“They need to get people to come and access all roads, private roads, state roads, county roads,” Renfro said. “If another disaster happens, I don’t want 13 people to die because of it.”
The fire department says it approached the snowstorm the same way it approached wildfires exhausting all available resources.
They created a prescription delivery program in response to this year’s snowfall. All local pharmacies participated and the fire department helped facilitate delivery to those trapped. And distributions of food and firewood were also organized.
“The county had every device and personnel at its disposal assigned and engaged in this incident,” Sherwin said with the fire department.
Schools reopened and life was almost normal in Lake Arrowhead Village, the main shopping and dining center, on Thursday – 20 days after the February 24 blizzard.
But the snow removal continues for the Renfros, who continue to clear their private roads with a snowcat that they had to repair several times.
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“Everyone is equal on this mountain. There are lives on every road, whether they’re considered counties or not,” Renfro said. “
The next steps are insurance claims and damage assessment.
“We’re looking at those communities that live under the constant threat of wildfires and open significant premiums for fire insurance,” said Sherwin of the fire department. “And then a winter storm comes in and takes people’s homes away. And that was a very hard pill for me to swallow.”