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Desperate mountain residents trapped by snow beg for help; ‘We are coming,’ sheriff says

Cal Fire Fenner Canyon fire crew inmates dig snow from around a residence
Cal Fire Fenner Canyon fire crew inmates dig snow from around a residence at a Big Bear Lake trailer park on Friday.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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San Bernardino County and state officials reassured residents trapped in their homes that help was on the way. Road crews were making progress on clearing the roads and getting to residents on Friday.

In a joint press conference with local and state agency heads, Assemblymember Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale) acknowledged the destruction brought by the February storms and how those “generated a severe amount of anxiety, frustration and difficulty, especially to the victims and those who are actually trapped in their own home.”

U.S. Rep. Jay Obernolte (R-Big Bear Lake) said California lawmakers requested on Friday for President Biden to declare a federal disaster in response to the winter storms in San Bernardino County.

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He encouraged homeowners and business owners to keep track of the damage in their homes in case Californians are asked to prove the damage done to the region. Obernolte cautioned that the bar for meeting a natural disaster standard is high.

Big Bear Lake streets are still choked with snow
Big Bear Lake streets are plowed while the area is still choked with snow after successive storms blanketed San Bernardino Mountain communities on Friday.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus said that although residents in Lake Arrowhead may not see snowplows or other measures on their street, the county was working to help them.

“We’re going to dig you out and we are coming. We are making tremendous progress,” Dicus said. “There are snowplows everywhere and you are going to see direct relief coming to your doorsteps shortly.”

Many residents in the San Bernardino Mountains are still stranded in their homes after back-to-back storms as emergency responders struggle through the snow.

March 3, 2023

Snowplows are working their way through the main highways before they turn their attention to residential and back country roads, according to officials. But plows pushing through the area are not enough to get to residents, because there are still 10-foot walls of snow left behind.

“Even though we’re making progress, we still have to knock down those walls,” Dicus said.

For days, Michael Bowen could see the snow piling up outside his home.

Having grown up in Massachusetts, he thought he could handle a California winter storm. Most of his neighbors in Crestline told him that snowfall in the San Bernardino Mountains wouldn’t get over a few feet.

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Then Bowen began to hear his roof creak under the stress of roughly 6 feet of snow piled on top of his home. He started to see large trees, weighed down by several days’ worth of snow and rain, bend to the ground.

Bowen’s home in the mountain community about 20 miles north of San Bernardino was surrounded by about 8 to 10 feet of snow when he caught a ride in his neighbor’s 4x4 truck down the mountain. Bowen doesn’t consider himself a disaster prepper, but he had about 15 days’ worth of food in his home.

Aerial view of snow covering a residential mountain community
Big Bear Valley is covered with snow Thursday after a series of storms blanketed San Bernardino Mountain communities.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Last week, his neighbor knocked on his door, worried because they smelled gas coming from their home and couldn’t get to the shutoff valve under the mounds of snow.

He invited his neighbors, a family of four, plus their cat and dog, to stay with him. He shared his food, but he could see the panic in their faces. He wondered how long they could wait for help.

On Wednesday, a neighbor offered all of them a ride in his truck.

“A lot of people are panicking,” said Bowen, who is now staying with his ex-wife in Montrose.

The epic snow finally stopped, but officials Thursday still struggled to reopen roads and get stranded people out of San Bernardino Mountain communities as conditions continued to deteriorate.

Residents are expressing growing anger over why officials have not been able to get them out. The California National Guard is poised to help with efforts, but officials say removing huge amounts of snow from local roads has proved more difficult than expected.

Emergency personnel load boxes onto a helicopter.
San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and Fire Department personnel load meals onto helicopters to be delivered to communities Thursday.
(San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department)

Road crews are working around the clock to clear the roads and while the snow has subsided, officials will turn their attention to reaching trapped citizens and also flood control as snow begins to melt and assessing for the risk for avalanche, San Bernardino County Fire Chief Dan Munsey said.

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He said while roads are being cleared, it’s not always possible for emergency crews to quickly respond to calls for help. The county has deployed eight snowcats — snowmobiles fitted with large tracks — to respond to emergency calls.

On Thursday morning, firefighters in Lake Arrowhead responded to reports of an explosion at a home with surrounding trees on fire, according to the San Bernardino County Fire Department. Neighbors were digging out a nearby fire hydrant when crews arrived. About an hour later, the Fire Department responded to reports of a gas explosion in Rimforest. There was no fire or injuries and the utility company was called to the area.

The dire conditions have hampered emergency response, with firefighters needing to use snowcats to shuttle crews and equipment.

Wednesday evening in Blue Jay, firefighters had to dig through feet of snow to get to a hydrant at the scene of a structure fire that injured two people.

Southern California Gas Co. is responding to structure fires with the local Fire Department, but is being delayed because of the snow, according to Brian Haas, spokesperson for the utility company.

“Residents should know that there are no systemwide gas outages or interruptions in the area,” Haas said.

Haas reminds people to clear their gas appliance exhausts and intakes, clear out snow from gas meters if possible, and avoid using a gas oven as a space heater.

California’s deadly storm season continued Friday as the first of two atmospheric river storms descended on the state, prompting evacuation orders.

March 10, 2023

If residents do suspect there is a gas leak, they should safely evacuate the area before calling the Fire Department, Haas said. The San Bernardino County Fire Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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But that’s not always possible for residents who are stranded in the aftermath of the snowstorm that whipped through the San Bernardino Mountains.

On Thursday morning, Graham Smith and his husband spent an hour and a half digging out the front door of their 80-year-old neighbor’s home.

“She literally couldn’t get out at all,” he said.

A Cal Fire Fenner Canyon fire inmate-crew member clears snow off the roof of a residence at a Big Bear Lake trailer park
A Cal Fire Fenner Canyon fire crew inmate clears snow off the roof of a residence at a Big Bear Lake trailer park Friday as the area digs out from successive storms.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

For the last 10 days, Smith and his husband have been unable to leave their home in Blue Jay and have spent much of their time shoveling snow, keeping their gas meter clear and their cars from becoming buried, and trying to get as much of the heavy snow off their roof.

“Our backs are broken, everything aches,” he said. “And most of this work is in vain because you’ll just be shoveling the same thing.”

The rest of the time has been spent trying to reach local officials, hoping they’re aware of the dire situation residents in Blue Jay are experiencing.

“Whatever help is coming now should have been here days ago,” Smith said. “We’re angry.”

While they wait for help, many residents have turned to one another.

The snow-capped Sierra Nevada and the Santa Monica Mountains north of Malibu are among the areas of California no longer considered to be in drought.

March 2, 2023

On Wednesday, the owners of Lake Arrowhead Sports Grille told residents they could pick up a care package of chicken soup, hamburgers, chicken strips or other items if they were in need of food.

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Not many residents have been able to get to the restaurant, said owner Karen Christopherson; most people have been unable to leave their homes because of the snow.

“I’ve been in my house for eight days,” she said.

As of Thursday, snow had reached all the way up the walls of her home, she said. She and her husband can’t open the front door, but they can still exit through the garage. But heading out means walking in waist-deep snow.

“We have plenty of food, but if we lose power, the food is going to go bad,” Christopherson said.

She and her husband decided to start giving away food after one of their cooks got stuck in the restaurant. He’d headed there thinking they would open last week. Instead, his truck has been buried in snow and he’s spent the last week sleeping on an air mattress, she said.

He’s fixed up meals — and drinks — for some locals who wandered by, but they decided to start giving out packages Wednesday for people running out of supplies.

“This is real and this is scary,” Christopherson said. “I just don’t think people realize how bad it is. This is catastrophic up here.”

Members of the California National Guard were set to arrive in the San Bernardino Mountains on Thursday afternoon to help people who have been trapped in their homes for several days by heavy snow, officials said.

Lake Arrowhead received over 8 feet of snow in the last week as a series of winter storms blanketed mountain resorts and communities across California, according to the National Weather Service. Though the snowfall has eased up, many residents remain stranded as crews work around the clock to clear roads and highways.

The arrival of the California National Guard comes after Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for 13 California counties Wednesday. The proclamation provides resources to the hardest-hit counties in the state, including San Bernardino.

Crews race to clear mountain highways after calling off plans to escort residents out because even cars with chains on their tires were getting stuck in snow.

March 1, 2023

The California National Guard Joint Task Force Rattlesnake Unit was activated and expected to arrive in Lake Arrowhead on Thursday afternoon from Fresno, according to California Office of Emergency Services spokesperson Brian Ferguson. The unit typically works with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in clearing vegetation and wildland firefighting.

The governor’s order also allows agencies such as the California Department of Transportation to contract with out-of-state contractors to clear the roads and provide other road maintenance services, Ferguson said.

“The hope is that this provides significant resources to support the county,” Ferguson said.

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A rescue helicopter unit is on standby in Los Alamitos if San Bernardino agencies require its assistance, said Lt. Col. Brandon Hill with the California National Guard.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department will deliver via helicopter military ready-to-eat meals to people in the mountain communities, according to a social media post from the department.

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