By RHEA-FRANCES TETLEY
Ezekiel, a storm that swooped through California from the north, then set itself over the four-corner states, had a southern finger that swept through the mountains of Southern California and, as predicted, brought rain and snow, which closed most roads leading into and out of the San Bernardino Mountains over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
After dropping loads of snow on these mountains, it then spread eastward, bringing blizzard conditions across the entire United States.
“Treemageddon,” as it was called by some Crestline residents, wreaked havoc upon the mountain communities as its winds and heavy snowfall brought down thousands of branches and hundreds of trees.
According to the Crestline Village Water District, the storm brought 3-½ inches of precipitation to Crestline, in the form of 10 to 18 inches of heavy snow, depending on elevation, breaking hundreds of trees and causing several days of power outages.
In Lake Arrowhead, “Snowmageddon” brought two or more feet of snow and many power outages. According to Southern California Edison Co. (SCE), 75 percent of homes had power restored by Sunday evening.
In Green Valley Lake, residents reported three to five feet of snow but, because of the higher altitude and colder temperatures, the snow wasn’t as heavy and not as much damage occurred. Big Bear reported over 50 inches of snow fell at the tops of Snow Summit and Bear Mountain resorts.
The Highway 18 closure was at Arrowhead Springs at the bottom of Waterman Canyon, beginning Thursday. The Highway 330 closure was higher up, trapping many cars on the two-lane highway for hours. Highway 18 through the Arctic Circle to Big Bear was closed through Saturday evening. On the highway, many vehicles crashed, while others were stuck due to rock slides. The road closures of Highway 330 lasted through Saturday, allowing only residents up. Highways 330 and 18 to Big Bear opened on Sunday with R-2 conditions, enabling Snow Valley and other ski resorts to open, causing congestion and delays.
At some point through the long holiday weekend, every state highway was at one time designated with R-3 conditions as storm, road and accident conditions changed, said Caltrans.
Highway 138 north of Crestline through to Silverwood Lake was still closed Monday due to rocks and fallen trees. However, a Caltrans spokesperson told The Alpine Mountaineer they anticipated that, by working in conjunction with Cal Fire, it would be opened before Tuesday.
It appears, despite the accurate prediction of the severity of the storm, many visitors and residents did not take the warnings from Caltrans and the National Weather Service seriously and ventured out into the storm ill-prepared, many without chains and some without full tanks of gasoline.
Caltrans had announced they would not allow vehicles without chains to enter the mountain communities, but some assumed they could ignore the advice and said they had chains when they didn’t or showed chains that would not fit their tires. Then, when they reached the heights and snow conditions where they could not progress, they got stuck or spun out and crashed, closing the highway, and then others got stuck in the snowstorm on the roadways behind them. This created a dangerous situation for all.
Some had to be rescued and driven to safety Thursday night so they didn’t freeze inside their stuck vehicles. After the light of day on Friday, hours were spent removing the vehicles. Some residents reportedly spent Thursday night in hotel rooms or at relatives’ homes down the mountain and avoided the traffic disaster.
The huge traffic jam of stuck and crashed vehicles on each of the roads forced Caltrans to close further entry of vehicles. Those without a full tank of gas that made it to the top found they could not buy gas because of the power outages and became stranded on the mountain. All the highways were at some point during or after the storm designated as R-3 conditions meaning even 4×4’s with snow tires required chains for safe travel, said Caltrans.
It took over 12 hours to clear the road of all the numerous accidents, fender-benders and stuck cars Friday on Highway 18. It opened to Crestline late Saturday afternoon, but many county roads were still unplowed due to toppled trees and downed power lines. By Monday morning, most county roads had been cleared and crews were widening them in anticipation of another storm predicted to arrive on Wednesday.
The KTLA news van made it to Top Town Crestline late Saturday afternoon after a resident helped them install their snow chains at a turnout on Highway 18 before the Crestline bridge. KTLA broadcast a report sharing the many problems in the area, such as numerous days of power outages and uncleared roads due to broken trees.
The storm brought cancellations of most mountain events, beginning Wednesday, and all community events on Thanksgiving Day, including the Rotary Club’s Thanksgiving community dinner scheduled Thursday at the San Moritz Lodge. Meanwhile, the closure of Highways 18, 138 and 330 on Thursday afternoon shut off the mountain communities from the communities below, preventing some residents from leaving and returning from Thanksgiving festivities. The community Christmas tree lightings scheduled for Friday at Lake Arrowhead Village and Saturday at Lake Gregory were postponed.
Throughout the weekend, the heavy snow, especially in the Crestline area, caused many tree limbs to crack, break and trees to fall onto houses, streets, cars and power poles and wires, creating power outages and closing roadways. Electrical repair crews were seen all weekend using their boom trucks returning power, while other areas suffered through darkness though the whole weekend.
Some people reported they were unable to even report their outages because phone lines to Edison were jammed or their phones didn’t work without electrical service. One couple in the Deer Lodge Park area claimed that, when they did get through to Edison, the company did not even know Deer Lodge Park existed in their system, which was “quite frustrating when you’re sitting in the dark, and cold.” Many were still complaining on Sunday afternoon of being out of power for over four days.
Edison reported that approximately 24,600 customers were without power in the mountain areas surrounding Lake Arrowhead on Friday. By Saturday evening, only 10,300 were still without power, reported KTLA News. Edison was telling customers that, because of the traffic jams caused by the many people on the roads, Caltrans closing roadways and vehicles without chains, they were having difficulties reaching the outages. Edison warned residents in the area to call 911 if they see any dangling wires or downed power lines and to refrain from touching them or stepping in water where there are downed lines. It is also dangerous to try to remove any broken tree limbs that have come in contact with power lines.
Edison crews were still restoring power to mountain areas on Monday with no statement on when service would be restored to all areas.
Most residents did not get the warning and update notices since they were without power and unable to get Internet or radio/TV service. Many who called in service orders only reached computerized recordings. Those who waited on hold for an hour or more and reached a person answering the phone, such as Dana Boyce, said, ”The Edison rep said early Saturday that trucks can’t come up due to CHP road closures. He also said there were some SCE workers on the mountain but it’s too overwhelming a task for the ones that are here.” Bottom line was “we are doing the best we can.”
Supervisor Janice Rutherford said on Saturday evening, “Edison has been working diligently. Last I heard a few hours ago they’d restored power to about two-thirds of those who had been out. They’re in contact with County Emergency Services and we’ve facilitated their staging grounds and other needs. We’ve worked with CHP to get them where they need to be, but this was a huge storm with huge effects. Today, Edison partnered with San Bernardino County Fire to get firewood available for residents who had run out.” It was being distributed at the Crestline/Lake Gregory Chamber of Commerce and at the County Fire stations in Twin Peaks, Lake Arrowhead and Green Valley Lake.
“We’ll debrief after to see what we can do to avoid this problem in the future, but really everyone is doing all they can,” added Rutherford.
Many residents were asking CHP and Caltrans officials to allow residents only onto the mountain until power was restored and roadways cleared. But as soon as roadways were available, they were opened, enabling the ski resorts to open on Sunday.
Many residents questioned whether the massive removal of thousands of trees this past summer by Edison contributed to the falling tree situation by removing the stronger healthy trees and leaving the smaller weaker ones which could not withstand the winds and heavy snowfall. “If they really cut the trees to protect their lines, why are we still without power?” a Crestline resident asked on Monday afternoon as she watched Edison trucks working for the second day in a row on her block. Many residents in the Lake Arrowhead area were still without power on Monday.
The San Bernardino Mountains were not the only area affected by the storm, said Edison. “Powerful winds and heavy snowfall resulted in numerous reports of downed wires in the Idyllwild, Redlands and Antelope Valley areas. We understand how disruptive a power outage can be and thank customers for their patience.”
Ezekiel continued its eastward movement wreaking havoc across the country all the way south to Louisiana with tornados and huge snowstorms attacking the East Coast. Another storm is predicted to hit the mountain communities on Tuesday night or Wednesday, coming from Northern California where it has been raining all weekend. The long-range forecast is for winter storms to come in waves for the next two weeks, according to the National Weather Service. Residents hope they will be weaker than Ezekiel.