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‘We got each other’s backs’: Residents in San Bernardino Mountains rally together after winter storms

People walk among tables with items on them outdoors.
Valley of Enchantment resident Bill Roberts walks away with food and supplies from a volunteer food pantry in the San Bernardino Mountains community.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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During the nearly two weeks he was stranded in his home, Mark Steven Young called about 20 people or agencies to try to get his street plowed and a 6-foot mound of snow cleared from his door.

The 70-year-old Cedar Glen resident had been trapped after back-to-back storms dumped more than 100 inches of snow on the San Bernardino Mountains — surviving off the food and powdered milk in his house. But he was running low on medicine.

“I could try to walk to the village, but I got a bad leg, so that’s not too good,” he said.

Help arrived over the weekend when volunteers with Sandals Church Lake Arrowhead showed up with food and Young’s heart, blood pressure and pain medications. When they saw the snow on Young’s property, they left and returned with snowshoes so they could make the trek to his door.

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Those who came to Young’s aid exemplify how community members stepped up in the wake of the devastating storms to help provide the services they say officials did not.

Throughout the snow-blanketed region, volunteers have distributed bread, established makeshift food banks, cleared snow from neighbors’ roofs and roadways, and created an online notification system to find those with the greatest needs.

“We rally really well with things like this,” said Adam Atchison, a pastor for Sandals Church in Riverside who has helped deliver food and supplies to mountain residents. “When there’s a tangible need, we tend to show up in force.”

Boxes of groceries in the back of a vehicle and people stand outside near it.
Volunteers with Sandals Church gather food for delivery into the community as Crestline residents continue to dig out.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Some isolated residents have been injured by collapsed roofs and gas explosions in their homes. Others have languished without power and heat, relying on a dwindling supply of food and medicine — and growing increasingly angry with San Bernardino County officials, who they say failed to prepare for the storms and address their needs afterward.

As of Thursday, at least 13 people have died since the snowstorms hit. More people are believed to be dead in their homes, their neighbors say, having been cut off from access to services and emergency responders.

Authorities say preliminary investigations suggest the deaths were not weather-related, but locals insist the scope of the tragedy could have been lessened had roads been cleared sooner.

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Kristy Baltezore, a Crestline resident, discovered during a welfare check that her neighbor had died.

“I have people calling me crying because they’re so exhausted and they’re terrified that they’re not going to be able to save their neighbors’ lives because they’ve been digging for days and days to get to people,” she said.

County officials have acknowledged they weren’t fully prepared for the onslaught of storms that battered the mountains. The front-end plows used for routine road maintenance had been rendered ineffective by the immense amount of snow. Officials also said there wasn’t enough time to ask for extra equipment from other jurisdictions.

“You have our commitment as an organization that there are a lot of lessons that we’re going to learn from this,” San Bernardino County Chief Executive Leonard Hernandez said during a recent video briefing.

The only grocery store in Crestline, Goodwin’s Market, closed last week because of a partly collapsed roof, prompting Baltezore to spring into action.

The 44-year-old film and TV production designer helped set up an emergency food bank and created a database for residents on the mountain, allowing people to submit their location and what they need. The volunteer effort, dubbed “Operation Mountain Strong,” then created a map for residents to check on people nearby who need help. As of Tuesday evening, the group has heard back from 346 households in emergency situations.

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“I know there are people dead,” Baltezore said. “I see what every single person on that map needs. I know who they are. I know how vulnerable they are. This is not good. We still have half our community we haven’t made contact with.”

A person shovels snow.
Sandals Church volunteer Dave Mack shovels a path for Denise Goss in Crestline.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Executive pastor Dan Zimbardi of Sandals Church Lake Arrowhead said they sent out an online form to about 1,000 parishioners last week, asking if anyone needed help and if anyone was capable of helping.

The form has since reached thousands of people.

Sandals Church has 14 locations throughout California; volunteers from other church campuses began bringing food and supplies to the San Bernardino church after the storms, Zimbardi said. They then created distribution points in Lake Arrowhead and Crestline and sent teams to meet people on their streets or even at their homes.

“The mountain community is extraordinarily resilient but, more importantly, so unified as a broader community,” he said. “There’s really thousands of people helping their neighbors up here.”

Megan Vasquez, who lives in a Crestline neighborhood called Valley of Enchantment, started a food distribution center nearly a week ago because residents there couldn’t get to the county’s food bank.

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“It’s so shameful,” she said. “If I watch our local news, [authorities are] saying that they have a handle on things and they’re taking care of everyone and food is being distributed. That is not true. I’ve been boots on the ground from the very beginning, and we haven’t even been able to reach everyone. There are still families snowed in we’re not aware of.”

Vasquez said her street was finally plowed Tuesday — by a private citizen.

“This is a crazy, unheard of 100-year-storm and the lack of government officials or government agencies coming in and helping has been lackluster to say the least,” she said.

Cans are on tables and boxes on the ground inside a room.
The food distribution center at Veterans of Foreign Wars in Cedarpines Park on March 7, 2023.
(Summer Lin / Los Angeles Times)

A few days after the storms, Robin Riolo also created a food distribution point at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Cedarpines Park. She heard about people going hungry and decided to cook hot food there for people to pick up. More community members then got involved, bringing pizzas and other supplies.

On Monday, Sandals Church members dropped off boxes of food and supplies, including diapers, baby formula and medicine. They also got insulin from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“We just got together,” said Riolo, who has lived on the mountain for a decade. “We just have to do it. I went through all the food in my house, cooking for my neighbors. I shoveled a lot of people out.”

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Riolo said after having helped hundreds of people at the center that things began to slow down Tuesday.

“I’m kind of glad it’s slow because that means people are taken care of,” she said. “They know they can call and one of us will deliver to them. Now we go to figure out where else on this mountain needs this stuff.”

Teo Solano walked atop several feet of hard snow Tuesday, using a shovel to scoop snow off the roof of a home in Lake Arrowhead.

Solano, his father and his friend have been clearing mounds of snow off roofs and clearing out driveways for elderly neighbors. They are also clearing snow from gas meters to prevent explosions.

“It’s been tough,” the Lake Arrowhead resident said. “We haven’t got any help from the government. But we got each other’s backs.”

The major highways, arteries in the mountain communities, have been mostly cleared by Caltrans. But many of the smaller roads, which are maintained by San Bernardino County, either are blocked by snow or have been reduced to one lane.

“Caltrans has been doing what they can, but there’s still a lot of people stuck in their homes,” Solano said. “They don’t know where to put the snow.”

A person shovels snow that is covering a car and several houses.
Kadyn Wheat, 14, shovels snow as he works to free the family car.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Liberty Guerrero and her husband, Zachary Pardee, both 33-year-old Crestline residents, rented two snow removers a couple of days into the storms to try to dig people out. They posted on social media and asked residents to call them if they needed help.

Guerrero said the calls they received were heartbreaking.

“There was a 70-year-old man, and you could hear his voice cracking because he couldn’t shovel his driveway anymore,” she said. “He couldn’t open his door.”

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Guerrero also heard from two older women in Lake Arrowhead who needed lifesaving medicine and tried to crawl out of their second-story window into the snow. As of Wednesday night, the couple have plowed snow for about 25 to 30 people.

“Nothing has been the county,” she said. “It’s all been us reaching out our hands and people meeting us halfway and helping each other the way we need help.”

Alexander Vallejos, a manager at Twin Peaks Farmers Market, arrived at the Crestline library with a pickup truck full of donations from Old Town Baking Co. in San Bernardino.

He and Sean Devine, also from the farmers market, were making their rounds Tuesday, dropping off bread.

“We are just making sure that people have what they need,” Devine said. He’s watched as distribution centers have been set up around the mountain communities, where stranded people can walk to for some groceries.

“It was a really wonderful thing to see people come together and help each other,” Devine said. “It’s a good feeling to be a part of it.”

Staff writer Grace Toohey contributed to this report.

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