The intrepid firefighters, led by the esteemed Newcomer and his team, are well-versed in battling the untamed infernos that rage across the craggy San Bernardino range of California. However, the region’s recent deluge of historic back-to-back snowstorms presented a daunting challenge that was entirely outside their usual wheelhouse. To cope with the unprecedented circumstances, they resorted to innovation and resourcefulness.
By repurposing their scanty stock of snowcats, which boast tracks rather than wheels, they were able to create versatile and multifunctional units that served as ambulances, fire engines, and tow trucks all rolled into one. These improvised rescue vehicles became the Swiss Army knife of Newcomer’s crew and the entire community’s lifeline, as they valiantly worked to cope with the record-breaking snowfall that had engulfed the area. However, at the outset of the emergency, the available number of snowcats was insufficient to meet the daunting task at hand.
As Newcomer explained, “It was conditions I’ve never operated in before. We had never encountered needing that many of them.”
After years of battling deadly blazes, California’s firefighting departments are now grappling with a relentless deluge of water as they struggle to cope with staffing shortages and overworked first responders. The state’s unique geographical location exposes it to the perils of weather whiplash, with scorching dry conditions in the summer giving way to torrential rains, deadly floods, and meters of snow in the winter.
These wild swings in weather have severely tested the capabilities of emergency responders in San Bernardino County, where at least 13 people perished during the latest bout of severe weather, either in their homes or the hospital. In some cases, their remains were only recovered days after their demise, and it is unclear whether any had contacted emergency services for help.
Officials in the area have conceded that they were unprepared for the historic storms, which hit with such ferocity that even the most robust plows were overwhelmed. On Tuesday, Leonard X. Hernandez, San Bernardino’s chief executive, acknowledged that the county lacked the requisite equipment and plows of sufficient size and scale to quickly clear the snow. The county plans to conduct an analysis of its response to the emergency, particularly in Crestline and Lake Arrowhead, to ascertain whether adequate preparation was carried out.
For first responders, it has already been a grueling year, with atmospheric rivers wreaking havoc and unleashing severe storms that have claimed dozens of lives, displaced thousands, and traumatized countless others in a state where winter weather usually provides respite from the ever-present threat of disasters. While the abundance of precipitation has alleviated California’s drought, the catastrophic aftermath has been far-reaching.
Last weekend, the failure of a levee in central California submerged a small town underwater and forced hundreds of people to flee their homes. Over 50 people were rescued by the California National Guard from the murky floodwaters. Earlier this month, the National Guard deployed a firefighting unit to the San Bernardino Mountains, where they worked in tandem with Newcomer’s county fire team and other first responders to evacuate residents and clear roofs of snow.
“As far as the state’s scale is concerned, it’s never-ending,” Newcomer lamented.
In Crestline, a remote mountain community with a population of approximately 10,000, situated 60 miles east of Los Angeles, the snowfall began on February 23rd. The firefighters stationed at Fire Station 25 that day found themselves stranded, as the snow piled up to several feet, blocking the roads and trapping both residents and first responders. The situation was further compounded by a barrage of calls for assistance.