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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Death toll rises in Southern California mountains after blizzards

Communities in Southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains have begun to clear away several feet of snow that left many trapped in their homes.

By Jill Cowan

As mountain communities in Southern California gradually emerge from piles of snow, officials are starting the difficult task of assessing the damage and the number of people who have died.

At least four people were found dead in their homes in the Big Bear area of San Bernardino County, the first one on March 2, Shannon Dicus, the county sheriff and coroner, said Wednesday.

But the total number of dead could climb. Dicus said that at least 11 people had died in the region since Feb. 23, including those who were receiving care at Bear Valley Community Hospital. How many of those deaths are directly related to the snowstorms, however, is unclear because his office has not provided more information on the circumstances involved and is still reviewing the cases.

Dicus’ office so far has only attributed to the storm the death of a 39-year-old woman who was killed in a hit-and-run traffic collision on Feb. 26.

Residents and local leaders have said that they were unprepared for the powerful storms that first arrived Feb. 21 and ultimately surrounded homes in snow drifts as tall as 10 feet. Many began running low on food, fuel and medications. Some endured power outages, while a handful of fires are believed to have been sparked by broken gas lines.

County officials have urged stranded residents to call 911 if they are in serious danger and need to be rescued immediately, but not all of those in dire need may be aware. Dicus emphasized that emergency communication systems were functioning and crews had been responding to calls for aid. He said there was a possibility that more people could be found.

“I’m worried about the people who we don’t know need help,” he said.

Dicus said that while the causes of death for the four people found in their homes were still being determined, there was no evidence of foul play; in three of the deaths, there was a history of significant medical concerns.

California is still digging out from a particularly heavy bout of snow in recent weeks, including in lower-elevation areas that rarely see eye-level embankments. Unusually cold conditions allowed for snow to fall in more regions, creating a winter wonderland in some parts and wreaking havoc in others.

That is predicted to change Thursday when the cold front departs and a warm atmospheric river from the tropics is expected to arrive. Warmer temperatures may help melt the snow drifts but could also strain roofs with additional weight if the snow absorbs water.

In San Bernardino County, the recent run of blizzards has slammed the mountain towns that are popular vacation destinations for Southern Californians and hubs for retirees. Dicus said the fact that a large share of homes are unoccupied for much of the time has made it extra challenging for emergency workers to determine whether there might be someone who needs help inside.

“We can’t knock on the door and then kick down the door if nobody answers,” he said.

Still, Dicus said that 700 firefighters, 60 law enforcement officers, search-and-rescue teams and volunteers were going door to door trying to make contact with as many of the area’s roughly 40,000 residents as possible. He said that there were 90 pieces of heavy equipment helping to clear snow. Over the past week, he said county roads had been plowed, allowing residents to travel to the region’s only open grocery store and other businesses, and crews were working to open up private access roads and driveways.

“We have plenty of boots on the ground,” he said. “I do believe we have a good handle on the situation as we speak.”

Still, local officials have said that the storms overwhelmed them and that they learned too late how heavy the snow would be. Dan Munsey, the fire chief of San Bernardino County, said last week that “the weather came in much worse than has ever been anticipated in Southern California.”

Munsey said that the county did not have the kind of specialized equipment that was necessary to keep the roads clear, and that it was using shovels and construction tractors to supplement the snowplows it had.

Many residents have expressed frustration with what they say has been a disorganized and slow government response ever since. And while neighbors and volunteers have offered to help clear driveways or deliver food, they worried that some older residents were unable to seek aid.

“The community and neighbors have been able to help some of these elders,” Daphne Salas said. “Some of them don’t have that, and they’ve been left all by themselves.”

Salas, 50, is an in-home caregiver who lives in Lake Arrowhead, one of the vacation hamlets tucked along the narrow roads snaking into the mountains. She said she took it upon herself to check on her older clients, many of whom she said were veterans who didn’t have relatives living close by.

One of her clients on hospice care died, she said, and his body wasn’t moved for four days.

Under clear skies Wednesday, some residents were trying to resume the rhythms of normal life, before any more rain or snow arrived.

Philip Simmons, 70, said he and his wife had lived on the western side of Lake Arrowhead for about seven years. They, like other full-time residents, watched as snow piled up outside their windows, awed by a wall of white that reached almost to their roof.

“It felt like we were living in an igloo,” he said.

Simmons said that the roads were clear enough now that he and his wife were planning to make a grocery run Thursday morning.

“We personally are not frustrated,” he said. “It would be nice if we had enough money to prepare adequately for everything all the time, but we don’t.”

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