By DOUGLAS W. MOTLEY
At last count, some 13 persons have reportedly died throughout the mountaintop communities since the beginning of a series of winter storms that raged across the mountain since Feb. 21. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s Mobile Field Force, along with their Search and Rescue Unit and state and local fire authorities, continue to respond to calls for service that include welfare checks and death investigations.
To date, only one death, that of a 39-year-old female who was accidently run over following a collision on snow-covered Polique Canyon Road north of Big Bear, is thought to be weather-connected. According to a March 9 sheriff’s press release of the 12 remaining deaths, investigators determined that four of the decedents were either in hospice care or died in a hospital.
Many mountain residents believe authorities are underestimating the true number of fatalities that are attributed to the recent series of winter storms. For example, Crestline resident Michelle Hake told the Los Angeles Times that her sister had been snowed in for several days at her home in Big Bear. “She needed medical attention in the midst of the storm, and we could not get that to her. We were too late.”
Other mountain residents who spoke to the Times said the blocked roads and lack of heat, cellphone service and food likely contributed to, if not caused, the deaths. While attending a recent Big Bear City Council meeting, Big Bear resident Laura Johnson said a friend who lived in the area had died because her home could not be accessed by a dialysis provider. “They would not allow the driver to come up and pick up my friend who needed dialysis three days a week, and he passed,” Johnson said.
According to Crestline resident Rhea-Frances Tetley, her 93-year-old neighbor Elinore “Dolly” Avenatti was found dead on Monday, March 6. “Avenatti may have been elderly, but she was lively and a fixture in her community. She was a joy for the neighborhood. She was feisty and independent, and generous to a fault. She was active in senior citizens groups, baked cookies for neighbors, walked through the neighborhood daily, before the storm, and collected bottles and cans to make donations to animal rights groups,” Tetley said.
Tetley added that “she went a week without power, stuck in her cold house, alone behind mounds of snow. Neighbors had been delivering food and checking on her for about a week. But, when the power was turned back on, she didn’t answer neighbors knocking on her door. On Monday they went inside and found her dead. She didn’t have heat. I think she froze to death in her house.”
Newspaper Publisher Aaron Creighton, who resides in Cedarpines Park, said a nearby neighbor had passed away on Wednesday, March 8. “The fire department spent 30 minutes digging through snow to access the man’s house to transport the body,” Creighton said, adding, “It’s not the end of it. We have a lot of people that are completely and utterly cut off and stranded right now.”
Megan Vasquez, who started a food distribution center in Crestline’s Valley of Enchantment, heard that two persons had died in a nearby mobile home park during the storms. “I do feel like there is going to be a large body count when it’s all said and done. There are many elderly people who are kind of reclusive in their homes with nothing, and there will be more people who have passed.”
Sheriff’s spokesperson Mara Rodriguez said the number of official welfare checks had decreased significantly in recent days and that authorities were still making house calls the same day a welfare check was requested. If anyone needs help checking on a neighbor or loved one, officials urge people to call 911 or the county’s storm response call center at (909) 387-3911.
Neighbors and family members suspect 93-year-old Elinore “Dolly” Avenatti froze to death in her Skyland area home in Crestline. (Contributed Photo)