'Quite catastrophic': California mountain residents plead for more help as feet of snow remain

While all of the Sierra Nevada and Southern California mountains have had experience with heavy snows before, the amount of snow in these storms has been overwhelming rescue responses, leaving many trapped inside their homes for days with dwindling supplies.

CRESTLINE, Calif. – The intense winter storms have pummeled the mountains up and down the spine of California with heavy snows for weeks. While all the Sierra Nevada and Southern California mountains have had experience with heavy snows before, the amount of snow in these storms has been overwhelming rescue responses, leaving many trapped inside their homes for days with dwindling supplies.

"The mountains outside of Los Angeles in Ventura and Santa Bernardino Counties — these are mountains that do get some snow, but they’ve been hit with multiple storms that have brought in 5-8 feet of snow," said FOX Weather Meteorologist Britta Merwin. "So, this historic snow is leaving many cut off from civilization."

More than 500 emergency personnel, including firefighters, law enforcement and utility workers, have made their way into the buried communities in Southern California's San Bernardino County mountains, according to Eric Sherwin with San Bernardino County Fire.


"We are at day 11 since the storm first made its appearance here in San Bernardino County," he told FOX Weather on Monday, adding that the San Bernardino National Forest is home to the largest resident population of any national forest in the U.S., making for extreme logistical challenges.

"Over the past week and a half, we have performed over 100 rescues of residents within these mountain communities," he said. "During the first parts of storm, the roads received so much snow that fire trucks, ambulances and patrol cars could not make access into these communities." 

Instead, fire officials have been using specially equipped snow cats to deliver emergency services. As help and supplies have struggled to reach some snowed-in communities, it left neighbors to rely on each other.

"It's gotten quite catastrophic," said Nathan Hazard, who lives in Crestline. 

Hazard said that aside from firefighters that have made it to his community, they have not seen an outside response. What's worse, one of the town's main grocery stores collapsed due to the weight of heavy snow.

"Which is mortifying for everyone who relies on them for food," he said.

To get by, his community created interactive maps, "that show who needs help and where they are so people can literally hike to them with food or medication or baby supplies," he told FOX Weather. "It's gotten to a point that we realize we have to do this by ourselves as no one is coming really to help us."


He said what the region badly needs is a national emergency declaration from President Joe Biden to get federal help involved.

For Cindy Powers, a special education teacher who lives in Running Springs but commutes down the hill for work, the snow has left her unable to work for 11 days. Monday was the first day that she was going to be able to venture down the mountain for class, but she has to leave her husband and kids at home with no guarantee conditions will allow her to drive home after work.

"As a mother, it’s kind of heartbreaking you have to do these things in (the) middle of a crisis," she said.

Sherwin said the communities and their residents are well-equipped for snow, but with these storms, even the most well-equipped residents are becoming stressed. Meanwhile, heavy machinery has arrived to help clear snow in some towns, but even then, where do you put it?


"(On highways), CalTrans can go in and literally throw that snow off the side of the mountain," Sherwin said. "In our residential communities, it’s not quite as easy; we’re still forced to load snow into dump trucks and send those dump trucks out, so it’s a much slower process."

Sierra Nevada communities stuck in the snow too

Even those farther north in the usually snowier Sierra haven't been spared. Some mountain areas near Lake Tahoe received 10 to 12 feet of snow in just seven days, topped by an estimated 144-inch new snow total at China Peak and 114 inches at Soda Springs.

In Placer County, which is home to a chunk of the Sierra Nevada and the higher elevations of Interstate 80 in central California, people in nearby communities have been stuck inside for at least five days, according to Chief Brian Estes with the Placer County Fire Department. He said Donner Pass, which is just about 45 minutes east of their headquarters along the summit of Interstate 80, had as much as 300 inches of snow currently on the ground.

"Our snow amounts across the Sierras right now are of historic proportions," Estes told FOX Weather on Monday.

CAL Fire has been averaging about 150 calls for help per day last week.

"We’re seeing a host of really dynamic type of rescue environments, requiring a lot of specialized equipment," Estes said. "(It's) ranging from stranded people in homes that have been cut off by heavy snow to trees across roadways, power lines, etc., and getting to those people to provide warmth and food and/or getting them out for medical reasons."

The medical rescues have been particularly challenging.

"Just getting in for a medical emergency, we’ve had to go in on foot and bring them out either on snow machines or on sleds of some sort," Estes said.

And it's not just the local communities with grave travel impacts.

"Interstate 80 is one of busiest in the nation," Estes said. "It's been closed for 3 or 4 days over the last two weeks – which is very much unheard of – and when it has been open, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in serious motor vehicle accidents across the area."

Even those expecting snow got more than they could handle. Three snow surveyors from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks ventured out on Feb. 28 to take measurements, then became stranded in the snow for three days before rescue by the California Highway Patrol. They were not hurt. 

Estes said the mountain communities are no strangers to snow and are usually quite resilient.

"For the most part, they are prepared," he said. "But none of these communities are prepared for the massive amounts of downed trees, inaccessibility on roads, and power line issues."

More snow on the way

The last thing the residents want to hear is more storms are on the way, but the relentless stormy pattern is not done with the Golden State just yet.

Snow showers are likely in the mountains through the middle of the week before another atmospheric river takes aim Thursday and Friday. Snow may yet again be measured in feet in higher elevations, but heavy rains could exacerbate snow melt and lead to flooding in the lower hills.