In Snowed-In San Bernardino Mountains After The Storms, Mutual Aid Has Been Key
A month ago, San Bernardino mountain communities were hit by the first in a series of powerful storms, the likes of which had not been experienced in the area since 1989.
These communities are at some of the highest risk when it comes to the changing climate, which is worsening forest fires, heat, storms, and flooding in the area.
The National Weather Service had been warning of an intense storm in the forecast for days. Those who had long lived in the mountains stocked up on food, water, fuel and other essentials.
But a day and a half before the storm, the situation escalated: The National Weather Service’s office in San Diego, which oversees that San Bernardino mountain area, issued its first-ever blizzard warning.
“We were all warned this storm was gonna be a big one, we got the blizzard warnings,” said Graham Smith, a resident of the small community of Sky Forest in a briefing after the storm hit. “I think most of the residents here really did their part in terms of extra preparation. The reality, though, is it just really was not enough.”
Those blizzard conditions lasted for days, dumping a record 6 feet of snow in Big Bear — the last record was in 1979, when nearly 5 feet of snow blanketed the resort city. Even that amount was hardly comparable to other areas of the mountain: That single storm buried communities such as Crestline, Running Springs and Lake Arrowhead in 8 to 12 feet of snow.
The 911 calls started piling in. Sparse local hospitals were forced to close. The roof of a main grocery store collapsed. People were trapped in their homes for days — some for two weeks — walled in by huge mounds of snow. Hundreds of homes have been damaged or destroyed and at least 13 people have died, though the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s office is still investigating how many of those deaths were explicitly storm-related.
Though snowpack is generally expected to dwindle as the planet heats up, the climate crisis is driving increasingly extreme weather overall as a result of a changing water cycle.
It may feel counterintuitive, but that means winter storms are also becoming more intense, and could result in more rare situations like the blizzard in the San Bernardino mountains, which usually sees around three to five feet of snow in a good year. The recent rounds of storms have brought eight to twelve feet in some areas.
While it will take more study to understand how much climate change influenced these recent storms, the unprecedented situation provides a glimpse into preparing for more extreme disasters.
Mutual aid amid increasingly extreme weather
The San Bernardino National Forest is the most populated national forest in the country, home to more than 45,000 people year round, and more during the busiest seasons.
Most of the people confirmed to have died during the storm were 65 years of age or older who were living alone and had some history of medical issues. That’s not uncommon for the area – San Bernardino County as a whole is seeing its population of seniors increase more than any other demographic, according to county data.
For many mountain and rural communities, independence and taking care of yourself is a point of pride. The San Bernardino Mountains are no exception.
“The mountain community is by far and away one of the hardiest communities and best-prepared communities we have,” said Eric Sherwin, public information officer with the San Bernardino County Fire Department, which responded to 911 calls throughout the storms of the last few weeks. “They are so used to the threat of wildfire. But as we start reaching day 10, day 12 of this incident, even the best prepared resident is going to become stressed.”
In the areas hardest hit by recent storms, many residents waited for more than a week to have their homes dug out and local roads cleared. That meant neighbors had to come together to help each other out.
In the hours after the worst of the storm, locals in the Twin Peaks, Crestline and Lake Arrowhead areas banded together to create the mutual aid group Operation Mountain Strong.
Lauren Kruz, who moved from L.A. to Twin Peaks a year and a half ago to “live a simpler life on the mountain,” helped organize the group of local moms, real estate agents, business owners and other locals.
The group, along with the long-running mutual aid group Mountain Area Mutual Aid, pushed information across local Facebook groups, asking what help was needed, collecting donations and setting up times for food distribution, helping to dig people out and drop off medications. They checked on neighbors and called 911 if they couldn’t reach them.
In its Climate Vulnerability Assessment, San Bernardino County states that “Extreme storms are projected to become more intense and frequent by mid-century as a result of climate change. Severe weather could have a particularly negative impact on communities with limited resources or mobility, including homeless persons, individuals with disabilities or existing medical conditions, migrant workers, and senior citizens.”
Few counties have specific plans to support these populations. The California Foundation for Independent Living Centers has compiled resources through its Disaster Preparedness program. Learn more here.
“We saw seniors trapped in their homes. We saw people unable to access their vehicles and drive on our roads so they could get to doctors appointments, treatments, and access medications,” Kruz said. “For the elderly, the biggest challenges were lack of access to technology, lack of access to the larger community due to age isolation, limited mobility. Also just the fear of leaving their homes that are damaged because they don't want to become homeless. And especially if they have animals, people don't want to leave their animals because a lot of shelters don't accept animals. So elderly folks refused services in those instances.”
In one instance, Kruz and the group of community members secured housing for a 79-year-old woman and 68-year-old man who’d both had their houses damaged during the storm and were staying in a shelter staged at the local high school.
We neighbors came together when the county wasn't present for the first 10 days.
“We neighbors came together when the county wasn't present for the first 10 days. Many people that work for the county don't live on the mountain, so these are people that are coming from down the hill and don't really know what our resources are up here,” Kruz said. “So I was kind of coming in and bridging the gap between the county and our citizens, working with the county to connect with different vacation rental cabin companies, Airbnbs, to just get these people housing.”
With two of the three grocery stores in the area still closed from snow damage, Kruz said local volunteers are opening a store to provide free supplies in Cedar Glen, an area home to many older community members.
All in all, more than 500 local volunteers came together to help with the mutual aid efforts. The group said it raised more than $50,000 and 21,000 pounds of food and medical supplies to distribute to community members who need it. But Kruz doesn’t see the role of mutual aid dimming in the future.
“I've just seen an increasing need for community emergency response training because it's not if this happens again, it's a when, and it's not just snow, it's fire, it's earthquakes, it's all the things that we're vulnerable to in California,” Kruz said. “In addition to having the county be more prepared, we as citizens need to make sure that we have access to the resources that we need, and that we're trained to help each other and trained to act when this happens again.”
Unincorporated areas particularly challenged
Most of these mountain communities are unincorporated, which means they don’t have their own city resources and rely solely on the county for emergency support. That’s the case for many rural areas, which are also more susceptible to extreme weather.
For information on snow removal and local shelters and resource centers visit: https://snowinfo.sbcounty.gov/
The divide between incorporated and unincorporated played out during the recent storms, residents said.
“For many residents, it’s the latest drop of the ball in unincorporated areas,” said Graham Smith of Sky Forest. “There has been a pretty big contrast in our opinion between the level of openness and disaster preparation here versus Big Bear.”
Big Bear is its own city, which means it has to have its own emergency response plans and equipment, on top of its coordination with county emergency services. After the blizzard, the ski resort even lent some of its own snow tractors (snowcats) to county agencies to get to people in deeper snow in nearby unincorporated areas.
“I think we’re all looking to you guys to really give us some confidence that next time we get a blizzard warning here this isn’t going to happen.” Smith said in a briefing with county officials. “Weather is becoming more extreme and more unpredictable and I do think we should be expecting more events like this going forward.”
In a press conference, the county said it prepared for the storm by coordinating with local agencies ahead of time, stocking extra fuel at mountain satellite stations and readying existing equipment, but ultimately they said they simply didn’t have the right equipment for that amount of snow, including not enough snowcats or chains for their snow plow tires, which don’t require chains in normal winter storm conditions.
“What was impactful about this event was from Mount Baldy to Forest Falls, the mountains are completely covered in snow,” said Leonard Hernandez, San Bernardino County Chief Executive Officer, in a briefing with local community members. “In other snowstorms, we may get parts of the mountain covered, but we have not had the situation where the entire mountain system is covered with snow that’s at levels we don’t experience here.”
“Hindsight is always 20/20 even though I believe the team did an amazing job of mobilizing before,” Hernandez said. “If the National Weather Service ever issues a blizzard warning again, we will take a different approach immediately. You have our commitment as an organization that there are a lot of lessons we’re going to learn from this.”
The county will open three assistance centers in Crestline, Running Springs and Wrightwood. It has already closed most of its food distribution centers due to far fewer people arriving for assistance, said Sherwin. The county said it has enough donations, but Operation Mountain Strong says there’s still a need.
For now, all residents can do is continue to clear the snow surrounding them and continue to help their neighbors.
Operation Mountain Strong volunteers say supplies are still needed. They can be dropped off at Northpark Baptist Church, 5095 N Mayfield Ave. (Mon-Sat 9-1), or at Gods Helping Hand Thrift Store at 840 N Sierra Way (Mon-Fri 1-4), San Bernardino, CA.
Supplies needed include but are not limited to:
Canned food, soups
Canned chicken and tuna
Cup of Noodles
Diabetic friendly food
Microwavable food (non-frozen)
Instant Macaroni and cheese
Pancake mix (add water only)
Pasta and sauces
Dog and cat food
Formula: Soy and regular and digestive, all kinds.
Lactic acid milk
Shelf milks (Almond, Oat, etc.)
Peanut butter & Jelly
In addition to food, the need for the following items is needed:
Diapers all sizes: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 etc.
Feminine hygiene products
Toiletries (Soap, shampoo, toothpaste)
Small toys for kids
Manual can openers
Small space heaters
Winter clothing and boots
Heavy bags to carry supplies
Volunteers are also needed to help with packing and distribution on both sides of the mountain and can go to https://operationmountainstrong.com/ for more information.
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