LAKE ARROWHEAD, California – A winter wonderland just before spring has devastated most parts of the United States in recent weeks, from the Nor’easter in 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 stranded and others are without a home for three weeks since nearly 10 feet of snow hit homes, businesses and roads. At least 13 people were killed. And now what remains is a slushy mess and slowly melting snow.
The last time the area received a similar snowfall was in 1991 during the “March Miracle”, when snow fell up to six feet.
“We don’t get blizzard warnings in this area. I wouldn’t even say it’s a rare occurrence,” said Eric Sherwin, the public information officer for the San Bernardino Fire Department.
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San Bernardino County, the largest in the United States, at over 20,000 square feet, has not received a blizzard warning in decades.
“This storm was very different. We’re looking at record snowfall in many of these communities, so life pretty much came to a standstill,” Sherwin said.
About 15 miles east of the hardest hit communities from 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 to March 2010, nearly nine and a half feet of snow fell in that area. By comparison, mountain communities in the San Bernardino National Forest were mired in the same amount of snow in days.
A woman from Crestline, California, and her husband woke up to a white wall surrounding their home.
“We had two gazebos on our deck that were just smashed to smithereens on top of all our patio furniture, and a fire ring and all sorts of things just took everything out. That noise really brought us up. I was like, oh my god, what’s next? is going to happen now?’ said Paige Renfro. “At the time, our roof was at least four feet high, and this is a big house with lots of roof space.”
A week ago, she couldn’t even see the house across from hers.
She and her husband lived in Crestline, California, in the San Bernardino Mountains, in their “treetops” for 38 years. Their home, which sits on a steep slope, was not damaged, but not everyone was so lucky.
Paige said that with a generator, food, and even their snowplow, the residents of Renfro became a “command post.”
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“We have some girls who live two doors down, and they and their cats couldn’t go outside to get help… They put up a sign in their window that said ‘help us trapped,’ Renfro said. problem was we couldn’t see the board because the drifts were higher. So we ended up digging and my husband looked in and saw that sign and they dug it out.”
The storm affected an area 52 miles from start to finish, and the San Bernardino County Fire Department received more than 1,800 calls.
They maintain a fleet of eight snowcats equipped with firefighting equipment, the largest fleet in the region. With a “complete loss of road construction,” the snowcats were the only vehicles used during the worst icy roads.
“Because of this, we didn’t have a single person call 911 that we didn’t have access to. And that’s thanks in no small part to the snow cats,” Sherwin said.
They returned to the 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.
Officials are still assessing the damage, but residents are faced with rebuilding destroyed homes, excavating their submerged cars and making sure all people have successfully escaped. 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, California. He broke his ribs on a visit, and now he’s riding out the aftermath at a friend’s house.
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“You know, weeks later we got snowed in. I haven’t seen this much snow since I’ve been living here,” Rachau said.
Goodwin’s, one of the few supermarkets serving the communities of Lake Arrowhead and Crestline, is still closed after snow damaged the property. It has been open since 1946.
“It’s about five minutes to get bread or go get milk, and we’re going to miss that for a while,” Renfro said. “They[the owners]are very supportive of it, so I felt better to hear that they were 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 help from multiple agencies, as far south as San Diego and as far north as Santa Barbara, the county has cleared most state and county roads.
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But some in more remote parts of the mountains, such as the Renfros, live on private roads not plowed by the province. If they are not plowed up, energy companies cannot reach them. Their neighbors were without power for nine days.
“The roads below us were a network of darkness,” she said. “There was no way they could escape and they had no power, so it was cold, dark and there was no communication.”
She compares it to the Titanic.
“After the rowboats left, they waited for the ship to sink, and then they came in to save people. They looked around and said, ‘We’ve waited too long,'” Renfro said. “And I believe that because 13 people died here.”
She says officials should intervene anyway, because their roads are private, though paved, which she and her husband paid out of pocket for the neighborhood.
“I’m no way near the county. I think they followed their protocol,” Renfro said. “Clearing the path to safety is paramount. That should really trump protocols that the county or anyone else put in place during a disaster. That should really be the most important thing. And I’m sure it was, but I guess the forgotten few of us didn’t feel so.”
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She says she would like to see an amendment to change the approach to who is responsible for plowing private roads during a natural disaster.
“They need to generate people to access all roads, private, state and county roads,” Renfro said. “If another disaster comes, I don’t want 13 people to die.”
The fire department says it approached the blizzard the same way it approached wildfires, exhausting all available resources.
They created a recipe delivery program in response to this year’s snowfall. All local pharmacies joined in and the fire service helped facilitate delivery to the trapped people. And the distribution of food and firewood was also organized.
“The county had every piece of equipment and personnel assigned and committed to this incident at its disposal,” Sherwin of the fire department said.
Schools reopened and life was almost normal in Lake Arrowhead Village, the main shopping and dining center, Thursday — 20 days after the Feb. 24 blizzard.
But the snow clearing continues for the Renfros, who are still clearing their private roads with a snow cat they’ve had to fix several times.
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“Everyone is equal on this mountain. There are lives on every road whether they are considered a province or not,” Renfro said. “
The next steps are insurance claims and damage assessment.
“We’re looking at these communities living under the constant threat of wildfire and offering significant fire insurance premiums,” said Sherwin of the fire department. “And then it’s a winter storm that comes and takes people’s homes. And that was a hard, hard pill for me to swallow.”