The weather took a turn for the worse in late February as an arctic air mass plunged down the West Coast, prompting a rare blizzard warning. In an extremely unusual storm, staggering amounts of snow fell in the San Bernardino and neighboring San Gabriel mountains, where thousands of people live in or visit high-elevation communities reached by winding, steep highways.
Both ranges routinely receive winter snowfall, but what looked like the foundation for epic downhill ski days instead became a nightmare for Compton and her family.
She last spoke with Avenatti, her great aunt, on Feb. 28 when she warned relatives not to visit because of dangerous road conditions. During their last conversation, Avenatti was her usual spry self and answered the phone in good spirits.
“Winter wonderland!” Compton remembers Avenatti saying.
The power went out once during their call, and it took Compton about 20 minutes to get her great aunt back on the phone. The next day, Compton checked outages in Avenatti’s neighborhood and saw that her great aunt, who lived alone, had most likely lost power again.
Her body was discovered Monday, sitting next to the fireplace.
“If she had power and wasn’t trapped in the house, I 99.99% believe she would still be here today,” Compton said. “At least she lived a great life and passed away in her happy place.”
The extreme weather prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare emergencies in 13 of California’s 58 counties, beginning March 1. Since then, a multiagency response team has deployed some 800 personnel to remove more than 7.2 million cubic yards of snow off state highways in San Bernardino County, or enough to fill 2,270 Olympic-size swimming pools, according to the state’s office of emergency management.
Big Bear City in the San Gabriel Mountains received 80 inches of snow over a seven-day period, the most since records have been tracked, according to the National Weather Service. Until this year, the most snow recorded in seven days there was 58 inches in 1979.
Despite a blizzard warning, no evacuations were ordered ahead of the storm.
“Evacuations were never on the table,” Wert, the county spokesman, said Wednesday. “They were never discussed. Have you ever heard of evacuations before a snowstorm in any part of the country?”
Mike McClintock, battalion chief with the San Bernardino County Fire Department, said the area had never experienced a snow emergency of this magnitude.
“The amount of snow is no shortage of a challenge for first responders and crews,” he said, adding that difficult road conditions have slowed recovery efforts.
San Bernardino County authorities said so much snow fell, it exceeded the ability of plows to clear roads, requiring earth-moving equipment and dump trucks to pick up and move snow.
A shortage of tire chains further hampered the response, a problem the county is already working to fix by ordering more chains for bulldozers and trucks, Wert said.
Highways were closed to all but emergency vehicles until this week, frustrating residents who had been away when the storm hit and were prohibited from heading back up to their homes.
Sections of key mountain roads in the Big Bear area were finally reopened Monday afternoon to residents only. The California Highway Patrol warned people returning home that they may encounter enormous snow drifts, downed power lines and potential gas leaks.
Roof collapses caused by the weight of the snow were reported, including a grocery store in the community of Crestline, where resident Cierra Lavarias said her family was stranded for nearly two weeks.
“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,” she said in a Facebook post. “Good thing is, us ‘mountain folk’ are strong and will continue to take care of each other.”
The Associated Press contributed.