Photos and Article By Mary-Justine Lanyon
“This is the wrong time to visit the mountain” – Chief Dan Munsey
“We know we have stranded residents. Our number one priority is to get to them.”
That was how 3rd District Supervisor Dawn Rowe opened the press conference county representatives held on Wednesday, March 1 to address their responses to the recent series of storms.
“We have thrown all our assets at plowing the roads in the mountains,” Rowe said. “We are getting residents the food and medications they need.” She added that “we need our residents to take care of each other.
“We hear you,” Rowe said. “We are putting everything we have at this. We hear your pleas for help.”
Chief Dan Munsey of the San Bernardino County Fire Department noted they are getting lots of calls from residents in need of assistance. Those calls, he said, have to be prioritized. Residents, he said, need some level of self-sufficiency. “You can weather the storm if you have food, shelter, water and heat.”
The chief and Sheriff Shannon Dicus urged people to only call 9-1-1 if there is a life-threatening emergency. The county has set up a hotline – (909) 387-3911 – which will be open 24 hours a day. Calls about needing food or medications can be made to this number. Rowe noted that crews from County Fire, the sheriff’s department and public works are taking those needed items to residents, often on Fire’s Sno-Cats.
“The cooperation between agencies is very strong,” Chief Munsey said.
He and Sheriff Dicus could not stress enough how important it is that those people who wish to recreate in the snow stay off the mountain.
“As the roads start to open,” Chief Munsey said, “a lot of people will want to visit the snow. This is the wrong time to do that. Let us clear the roads. There is no place to park. You will find extreme conditions.” The visitors’ presence, he added, “would hamper recovery efforts.”
“No one has any business being up here,” Sheriff Dicus said. He added that sheriff’s deputies will be prepared to “remove those folks and their vehicles.”
Search and rescue teams have conducted 17 operations, the sheriff said, while Chief Munsey noted Fire has done 96 rescues using Sno-Cats.
Noting that there have already been several roof collapses, both Sheriff Dicus and Chief Munsey were pleased to report that there have been no serious injuries or deaths to date.
Brendon Biggs, the director of Public Works, noted his department monitors each storm as it approaches. “We realized this storm was big,” he said. They started prestaging equipment, getting fuel and chains in place. “We mobilized all resources available. This storm was unprecedented. The heavy snow was too much for local resources to keep up with.”
Biggs noted that the county has 500 miles of road to maintain in the mountain area, while Caltrans has 173.
Biggs pointed out to the down-the-hill reporters in attendance – mountain reporters had no way to get to the press conference – that the roads in the mountain areas are very different. “They are tight, windy roads,” he said. “There’s one lane with trees and other encroachments.”
Biggs reported that many of the mountain areas have primary roads that are “passable,” meaning they are one lane wide with less than eight inches of snow on them.
“Our goal is to get all roads passable, then work on clearing and widening them,” he said. “With the storm ending, we can start clearing roads in Crestline, Lake Arrowhead and Running Springs. As soon as the roads get passable in one area, we will shift equipment to other areas.”
He is reaching out to the state for additional resources. One challenge is that contractors in areas where it does not snow do not have chains. “We’re trying to bring in equipment from other state agencies that deal with snow,” Biggs said.
Jim Rogers, the deputy director of maintenance for Caltrans, said they brought additional crews up to the mountain prior to the storm. And, once the emergency order was approved, more resources were brought in. He thanked the community for their patience and added he is proud of their crews. “They have been working around the clock for a week,” he said.
As for when residents can expect roads to open up, Chief Munsey said it will be at least seven to 10 days, unless more weather comes in.
“The clock starts ticking when the snow stops,” Biggs said. “We will try to keep the primary roads passable. Some of the more remote roads could take a week or two.”
When asked if the state had adequately responded, Biggs’ answer was, “Absolutely. We are hopeful we will pull in the needed resources.”
As for his message to those people stuck in the mountain communities, Sheriff Dicus said that “life is the number one priority. Citizens don’t have to worry about an emergency response. We can get to them.”
When asked about the escort schedule, Sheriff Dicus said they “lost traction” because of the snow that fell Tuesday night. “We have to start from ground zero again.” As soon as the roads are cleared, he said, residents will be allowed up the hill again with escorts.
He was pleased with the convoys of food, gasoline and medications that made it up the mountain on Tuesday.
What about help from the federal government? Sheriff Dicus said that “whatever aid we need will come our way.”
EMERGENCY MEETING OF THE BOARD OF SUPERVISORS
Later in the day on Wednesday, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors met in an emergency session to approve the issuing of purchase orders or contracts in an amount not to exceed $10,000,000 “for any emergency construction and modifications related to the effects of the storm.”
County CEO Leonard Hernandez said that, days before the storm, staff had mobilized and were ready to address what be an “historic snowfall.”
The original proposal was for the board to approve an amount up to $20,000,000 but, Hernandez said, that amount seemed high. If more dollars are needed, he said, he would come back with that request.
The funds, he noted, could be used to quickly lease vehicles and pay contractors for the use of their equipment.
“We want to get mountain residents road access and access to critical needs as quickly as possible,” Hernandez said.
Supervisor Rowe thanked Hernandez for his quick response. “This dynamic situation is changing rapidly,” she said. “We have seen roofs collapse, downed trees and downed live wires.”