Blizzard wreaks havoc on mountain
By DOUGLAS W. MOTLEY
A series of winter storms that began on Tuesday, Feb. 21 brought heavy rain and snow to the mountaintop communities with snow depth ranging from several feet at lower elevations to more than five feet in Crestline, Lake Arrowhead and Running Springs, and seven feet and more to the Big Bear Lake area.
Though the intensity of the storms decreased from what climatologists labeled a blizzard to a lower intensity by Sunday, Feb. 26, finally stopping by afternoon, two more less intense winter storms were expected to begin on Monday, Feb. 27 or Tuesday, Feb. 28, with sunny skies predicted to return to the area by Thursday, March 2.
The California Highway Patrol (CHP) issued a press release advising all mountain residents and visitors to carry tire chains, other traction devices, warm clothing and blankets and extra emergency supplies when driving on mountain roads in the wintertime. The roadways were declared to be R-3 conditions, meaning traction devices were required for all vehicles, including 4WD and AWD, with no exceptions.
Highway 330 was closed first due to an accident, and not re-opened, except for a grocery truck caravan on Saturday night to Big Bear with Caltrans clearing the roads in front of the trucks, according to a Caltrans District 8 video.
However, some drivers did not heed those R-3 requirements as the snow began heavily falling and many accidents occurred, resulting in the highways being forced to be closed to all traffic, while the accidents were cleared up and the passengers taken to safety from the highways.
One possible snow-related fatality was reported by the CHP around 7 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 26 when a motorist on snow-covered Polique Canyon Road north of Highway 38 near Big Bear City was involved in a traffic collision. A 39-year-old female passenger was outside the vehicle when, for unknown reasons, she was run over. The driver transported the woman to Bear Valley Community Hospital, where she succumbed to her injuries at 3:12 p.m.
Last week’s series of storms resulted in the closing of all major highways – Highways 18, 138 and 330, and even 38 to Big Bear, leading into the San Bernardino Mountains – with hundreds of vehicles stuck in deep snow, mountain wide. The storms also resulted in trees being uprooted and falling across powerlines and roadways.
CHP Public Affairs Officer Ubaldo Gonzalez told The Alpine Mountaineer on Friday, Feb. 24 that the agency’s patrol officers had been busier than usual dealing with multiple vehicles stuck in snow, particularly in the winding Arctic Circle segment of Highway 18 between Running Springs and Big Bear, as well as vehicles blocking private driveways.
Due to extreme weather and dangerous road conditions, firefighters had a difficult time getting to a structure fire in the 500 block of Golf Course Road. Upon arrival, firefighters found a home fully involved in flames, with a collapsed roof and nearby trees also burning.
A phone call to Goodwin’s Market on Sunday found that the store was operating with what one manager called a “skeleton crew” and quickly running out of food staples, such as bread, milk and meat. “We haven’t gotten any grocery deliveries since Tuesday,” said Liquor and Deli Manager Mike Fuller, who added, “Yesterday (Saturday) it was so slow that we closed at 5 p.m. Today, we hope to stay open until 7.” Noting that Lake and Lake Gregory Drives had finally been plowed, Fuller said, “I’m thankful that those employees who could come to work did.”
Last Saturday, Pat McCollister announced that the Arrowhead Queen tour boat was deep into the water on Lake Arrowhead and listing to one side and in danger of sinking from the weight of the snow and water. Fortunately, Brittany Munson got two local residents to respond to the call for help. Local snow removers Dillon Dorantes and Christian Curran braved the snowy roads and undertook the dangerous task of clearing the snow from the boat, saving a sinking dock and the Arrowhead Queen. It was said that the Queen probably would have sunk without their efforts.
The Snow Valley ski resort was abruptly closed on Sunday, Feb. 26, after they had received 90 inches of snow as there was no way for skiers or some of their employees to get there due to highway closure in both directions from the resort.
At least 500 children were stranded at Pali Mountain. They had arrived for science camp on Tuesday. The camp tried to evacuate the kids early on Thursday before the roads got too bad. However, R-3 conditions came into effect, requiring chains on even 4x4s and, after a semi got stuck on the highway, the busses were not allowed up to get the kids. Meanwhile, the camp’s staff continued to serve the kids and kept them entertained, creating a longer camp experience than they expected.
On Sunday, the busses again were sitting all day at Wildwood Park at 40th and Waterman in San Bernardino, waiting for the roads to be safe enough to pick up the kids. It is assumed other science camps were also in session, as January and February are a popular time to send kids to science camp. Since Pali Mountain Camp is on Highway 18, it is easily accessible by busses, when they get permission to go up the highway.
On Monday afternoon, at about 2 p.m. after 1000 Pines Road was cleared by the County Fire Department vehicles, the students who were attending the winter break science camp at Thousand Pines Camp were walked down the road to Lake Drive where three busses were waiting to transport them safely off the mountain. The kids will return with more stories and different adventures than they were expecting.
Mountain resident Dawn Houston reported on Sunday morning that her husband had been stranded at Mountains Community Hospital, unable to leave despite being released from the hospital due to the poor road conditions. She said on Facebook, “My husband is still at Mountains Hospital, along with several other patients, and one doctor. No one can leave because of the road closures. The doctor and staff have been there for three days. The staff is feeding everyone, even though most are released to go home, but can’t leave. We are blessed to have such caring people.” She later reported that Tim Donnelley was able to go retrieve him and bring him home, since the snow had stopped falling and the roads were slowly being cleared by Sunday afternoon.
As the snow finally stopped falling Sunday morning and the day progressed, more main county roadways were plowed and made passable. Channel 5 News interviewed people stranded at Wildwood Park at the base of the hill, including Jennifer Nichols who runs a ride service and got stranded down the hill. The reporter then came up to Top Town Crestline and showed the non-plowed roads, the berms from previous plowings and the vehicles stuck under five feet of snow.
The news segment was shown on the Sunday night newscasts highlighting the plight of those family members stuck at the bottom of the hill all weekend, since the road had been closed Friday evening. These residents, some just coming home from work, were stuck at the bottom of the mountain away from their families, while some families were expecting the groceries they had purchased, and some residents with medical conditions were stuck alone on the mountain, anticipating their arrival for the weekend. Many had to spend the night in their vehicles, as they had no other options, with the hope the roadway would open. It was still not open by Sunday night. It snowed in San Bernardino where they were waiting on Saturday.
Sunday afternoon, after the snow stopped falling, skip loaders and additional graders from other Caltrans yards were being brought to the mountain to assist in the removal of the snow from the roadways. The snow is so deep that more than just plows are needed. The current plow drivers have been working since the storm began and need to sleep as well. The steady snowstorm made it difficult to keep up clearing road with the regularly stationed equipment. Now places are needed to put this amount of snow as the roads are not wide enough to just plow it to the side.
When asked about this emergency situation, Supervisor Dawn Rowe sent this statement: “We have an entire team of agencies currently working on a strategy to allow residents and essential personnel access to mountain communities. This has been an unprecedented weather event which requires that we continue to work together to ensure the safety of all. While there’s still a lot of work ahead of us, I want to thank our various county departments and operational partners for their round-the-clock coordinated efforts. In particular, I’d like to recognize Public Works, County Sheriff, County Fire, Office of Emergency Services, Flood Control, Cal Trans, Southern California Edison and CHP.”
On a live broadcast on Monday morning on the Channel 5 News, the reporter interviewed about 50 residents who had been told they might be able to go home between 9 a.m. and noon that morning before the new storm began. But at 9 a.m. the CHP told them the road was closed indefinitely and to go away.
Instead, they lined up their cars at the blockade and spoke of running the blockade and driving up the mountain in a caravan as they saw cars coming down Highway 18. The CHP called for San Bernardino Police backup. There was still a standoff with hundreds of angry mountain residents wanting to go home after being locked out of the mountain since Friday night. At 10 a.m. the skies in the mountains communities were darkening as the storm approached and they feared another few days away from their jobs and families.
One of dozens of high-profile vehicles that got stuck in snow. (CHP Photo)
Downed trees resulted in the closure of this segment of Highway 18, near Skyforest. (CHP Photo)
Some motorists were able to leave the mountain before Highway 18 was closed in both directions. (Contributed Photo)
Many local grocery stores, including Goodwin & Sons Market in Crestline, were not only hard to get to but also short on groceries and staff. (Contributed Photo)
Goodwin’s Market quickly ran out of bread over the weekend. (Contributed Photo)
Quick action by two local men saved the Arrowhead Queen from sinking under the weight of the snow. (Contributed photo)
This equestrian in Dart Canyon found a way to make it through the snow. (Contributed photo)
It was little wonder shops in Lake Arrowhead Village were closed over the weekend. (Contributed photo)
Message boards at the bottom of Highways 18 and 330 alerted motorists the roads to the mountain communities were closed. (Contributed photo)
On Monday morning, angry mountain residents tried to storm the CHP barricade at the bottom of Highway 18. (Contributed photo)
The National Weather Service issued this tally of the 10 highest snow amounts from the series of storms last week. (Contributed photo)