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Calif. Snow Siege Sows Desperate Struggle to Clear Roads

Officials from the state Office of Emergency Management and the California Highway Patrol, among others, are in the mountain communities helping local agencies dig residents out of their homes and clear the roads.

Restaurant supply company workers deliver food to a Big Bear Blvd. restaurant following successive storms which blanketed San Bernardino Mountain communities on Friday, March 3, 2023, in Big Bear Lake, California. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Brian van der Brug/TNS
(TNS) - As crews hustled to clear snow-covered roads in the San Bernardino Mountains, many residents remained stranded Monday amid growing frustration over the dayslong delays to help locals who have been cut off for more than 10 days and are running low on food and medicine.

The San Bernardino Mountains received more than 100 inches of snow over the past several days, stranding an unknown number of residents in the mountain communities.

Now state and local agencies are working to clear out the mounds of snow using heavy machinery, including road graders, front-end loaders, dump trucks, snowplows and snow blowers. Officials from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Office of Emergency Management, the California Highway Patrol and the California National Guard are in the mountain communities helping local agencies dig residents out of their homes and clear the roads, according to the governor’s office.

Nearly 60 Caltrans employees had removed more than 7.2 million cubic yards of snow off state highways in San Bernardino County as of Saturday, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office. Private contractors have removed an additional 970,000 cubic yards of snow from State Routes 18 and 330, the statement added.

Since Sunday, 51 miles of roads have been cleared, out of a total of more than 400 miles of roads that have been serviced, according to the county. The county estimates that there are nearly 90 miles of roads left to be cleared.

The slow pace of clearing roads has become a source of growing anger in mountain communities. Making matters worse, residents have endured gas leaks, fires and roof cave-ins due to the snow, and authorities have struggled to give aid.

Firefighters have used snowmobiles they typically deploy for back-country rescues to respond to emergency calls in residential neighborhoods.

Volunteer crews on land and in the air have tried to help by dropping in supplies by helicopter.

The intensity of the snow — which sparked rare blizzard warnings — caught emergency crews off guard.

Snowplows that usually clear the mountain roads were ineffective, forcing crews to work around the clock using front-end loaders and hand shovels to clear snow berms to reach the communities that were still snowed in as of Friday.

“When it comes to clearing the roads, I’d say we learned some valuable lessons,” San Bernardino County Fire Chief Dan Munsey said during a joint news conference with state and local officials.

“Unfortunately, the snow came down so quickly and stacked up so quickly those front-end plows that we’re so used to using on a routine basis became ineffective.”

Fire crews have had to lug their equipment through the snow and dig to access fire hydrants, draining precious time to respond to the emergencies, according to the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

At least two people were injured in a house fire Wednesday afternoon in the community of Blue Jay, about a mile from Lake Arrowhead Village.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, and Southern California Gas Co. is working with emergency responders to address reports of gas leaks, said San Bernardino County Fire Battalion Chief Michael McClintock.

Newsom on Wednesday declared a state of emergency for San Bernardino County and a dozen other counties hit by severe storms, freeing up state resources such as the National Guard to assist.

With so many areas cut off, volunteers have stepped in to help.

Crestline resident Max Strawn, 30, was among dozens of local volunteers who offered to help their neighbors.

He said Saturday he waded through waist-high snow to deliver boxes of groceries to people with disabilities and elderly residents in the area.

“These are only the ones we know about,” he said. “I know there’s people we’re missing.”

Dawn Diggle, 42, who lives in the Valley of Enchantment in Crestline, said streets in her neighborhood were finally cleared Saturday of about 6 feet of snow that had piled up for more than a week.

She said that about 1,000 people showed up at a store Friday for food boxes that never arrived.

“Everyone left empty-handed,” Diggle said. “All this bureaucracy is really slowing things down.”

The situation improved Saturday, when she and other volunteers handed out boxes of milk, pasta, beans, rice and canned goods that had arrived from the state to about 500 people. She said a restaurant also delivered cheeses, fresh peppers and deli meats that she and other volunteers divided into freezer bags for residents.

“Everybody is desperate,” she said.

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