Inside the California mountain towns cut off by historic snowfall: ‘The damage is staggering’

Residents of some California mountain towns are bracing to be stranded for at least another week after record snowfall.

Repeat blizzards caused by a late-winter arctic blast have left high-elevation communities in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, buried under as much as 10 feet of snow.

The area is under a state of emergency with highways leading into the mountains closed for more than a week so far, only opening intermittently to allow in food and essential supply trucks.

In the small town of Crestline, resident pleaded for help in social media posts accompanied by photos of snow piled up to the rooflines of homes, collapsed buildings and downed power lines.

Some residents trekked out to carve “HELP US!!” in block letters in the snow, which was captured by a passing ABC7 news helicopter.

The roof of Crestline’s only grocery store, Goodwin & Sons Market, had collapsed under the weight of snow. The tire shop and local yacht club buildings have also collapsed, according to locals.

A woman who answered the phone at The Crestline Cafe told The Independent on Monday that she was unable to speak as the building was being evacuated due to a reported gas leak.

One Crestline resident, David Allen Burns, wrote on Facebook that “the overall damage on my street is staggering”.

He wrote: “All of us did not have power or heat or internet for 5 days this past week. Several residents are over 70 years old and without family living up here -- it is hard to explain. I feel so strongly about helping these people particularly.

“It is a harsh truth. They can’t shovel the massive amount of snow or navigate monumental ice berms. Their cars are buried in solid blocks of ice from Southern California Edison burying driveways to create access to repair damaged power poles and power lines. Old growth pine and cedar and oak trees have fallen on some homes.

“These people were mostly overlooked by the ‘search and rescue’ teams. Most of these houses do not have phone or internet at this time - lines are knocked down for many properties and will not be replaced until further notice.”

Sharing pictures of badly damaged homes, he added: “These series of extreme storms, became a crisis for all of us, but it is so much harder for elders and/or people with mobility issues in the community who do not have the ability to fix the problems themselves.”

Another resident, Cierra Lavarias, wrote that she was thankful for the men and women “running plows, distributing food and conducting search and rescue missions for our community”.

But she added: “But I’m not sure people are really understanding the dire situation that is happening here.

“Day 12 of being stranded in Crestline. We are okay, we have enough food for a few more days and we finally got power back to our house late last night, thank God. Our only grocery store has collapsed, along with our post office and hardware store. Not to mention countless residential homes and small businesses. We decided to take a walk today around our neighborhood and saw just that. I know we’ve heard that more resources are here now due to the state of emergency being declared (army, national guard. etc.) but honestly the majority of people are not seeing the help especially with their neighborhood roads. They can’t walk to any food distribution point even if they wanted to.

“There’s a county hotline but when you call it’s continuously busy or no one answers. I’ve heard mothers have been forced to give birth in their homes because they cannot get out or get medical attention, there have been casualties, the majority of mobile homes here have been compromised and collapsed- animals are starving and dehydrated from being left in their homes for 12+ days because owners are stuck down the mountain and cannot get up because they can’t seem to get the roads plowed. (I understand more vehicles are a hazard to plows).

A man walks past a damaged tire shop in Crestline, Calif., Friday, March 3, 2023, following a huge snowfall that buried homes and businesses. (Watchara Phomicinda/The Orange County Register via AP) (© The Riverside Press-Enterprise)
A man walks past a damaged tire shop in Crestline, Calif., Friday, March 3, 2023, following a huge snowfall that buried homes and businesses. (Watchara Phomicinda/The Orange County Register via AP) (© The Riverside Press-Enterprise)

She added: “We knew this was going to be a significant weather event days in advance- where is the planning? Continuity? This is an epic failure of our local government. Good thing is, us ‘mountain folk’ are strong and will continue to take care of each other. I will make sure my neighbors and their animals are fed and warm no matter what I have to do.

“I am not one to get political but I am outrageously mad and unbelievably disappointed at how this has been handled. This is not a joke.”

About 80,000 people live in the San Bernardino mountains, either part or full-time. However it’s not clear exactly how many people are in the area currently because many residences are vacation homes or rentals, The Associated Press noted.

Some elderly and vulnerable people had been evacuated using snowcats and two shelters were set up in San Bernardino County.

Emergency crews continue to remove snow and debris from major roads, public officials reported, amid reports of avalanches. But in local streets, snowplows were struggling to deal with the volume and residents were being advised to somehow mark the locations of cars to stop machinery crashing into them underneath snow heaps.

Emergency services were also battling through heavy drifts to respond to gas leaks and storm-related fires. Two house explosions were reported in the San Bernardino mountain towns of Rimforest and Lake Arrowhead, and believed to have been caused by the extreme conditions.

Fire departments asked residents to dig out hydrants where possible to save them hunting around in the snow in the midst of an emergency.

San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office reported on Monday that hundreds of firefighters, contractors, sheriff deputies and transportation workers were heading into the mountains to help communities.

But respite for stranded residents might still be around a week away, San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus said on Friday.

“We’ve said we could push it out as far as two weeks but because of the state’s efforts and the equipment that’s coming in behind us we’re hoping to drop that down to a week,” he told a press conference.

San Bernardino Mountain residents line up for a chance to get food at a tent in front of the Goodwin & Son's Market in Crestline on Friday (© The Riverside Press-Enterprise)
San Bernardino Mountain residents line up for a chance to get food at a tent in front of the Goodwin & Son's Market in Crestline on Friday (© The Riverside Press-Enterprise)

The severe California snowstorms led Governor Gavin Newsom to declare an emergency in 13 counties.

In Mono City, a small community on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada, power was finally restored on Sunday, according to a Facebook post from the Mono County Sheriff’s Office.

But the post added: “Now for the not so good news: it’s snowing sideways. Again. Whiteout conditions. 395 is closed north of 203. Here’s a good choice you could make: stay off the roads.”

On Monday, the worst power outages were in parts of northern California to the east of Sacramento. More than 6,000 customers were without power in Sierra and Nevada counties on Monday, according to utility tracker

And yet more treacherous conditions were being forecast. A much warmer storm system will impact central California from Thursday night through Saturday, resulting in rain across the Sierra Nevada foothills and below 8,000 feet.

The majority of this precipitation will fall on Friday and Friday night, the National Weather Service warned, and flooding is possible.

But the snowstorms and potential for more precipitation had one advantage for California – it made a dent in the state’s ongoing drought. Around half of the state is no longer in a state of drought, the US government monitor reported this week, but lack of groundwater will remain a problem.