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Atmospheric rivers are keeping an eye on snow-covered areas of California, forecasters say

LAKE ARROWHEAD, Calif. — After a blizzard swept through the mountains of Southern California, 79-year-old Alan Zagorski found himself trapped inside his home by snow-covered doors and stairs.

He and his wife had enough food to last 10 days until volunteers finally arrived Wednesday to clear about 10 feet of snow outside their home in Lake Arrowhead. They were running low on blood pressure medication, but teams had arrived a day earlier to resupply them in the high mountain community where Zagorski has lived for more than two decades.

“We’ve been through a lot of snowstorms but nothing of this magnitude, that’s for sure,” he said, as a crew shoveled his driveway in the hills east of Los Angeles. “Right now, they’re trying to find a place where they can put these things.”

In a once-in-a-generation weather event, late February brought staggering amounts of snow to the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountain ranges, where thousands of people live in forested enclaves. These areas are popular destinations for hikers and skiers who arrive via twisty, steep highways that are often closed due to icy conditions.

The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department said, “We continue to respond to calls for service for our mountain residents. To date, we have identified 12 people who have died. So far, we can only confirm one traffic accident as weather related.”

California Snow The Stranded

Rob Pagarian, left, and fellow volunteers with the disaster response group Team Rubicon dig a resident’s car out of the snow in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., on March 8, 2023.

Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Snow piled above the first-floor windows of many homes and residents who could walk out to buy groceries from stores with nearly empty shelves or pick up boxes of donated food at distribution centers.

Roofs collapsed, cars were crushed and roads were blocked. Power was out in many communities and authorities reported possible gas leaks and storm-related fires. Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in 13 of California’s 58 counties starting March 1, including San Bernardino County.

On Wednesday, he added 21 more, saying in a news release that the state is “working around the clock with local partners to deploy life-saving equipment and first responders to communities across California.”

And as the state continues to dig out from the previous storm, was on another path. Forecasters say an atmospheric river is expected to hit northern and central California early Thursday morning. San Bernardino Mountain communities will likely be spared another big snowfall.

California Snow The Stranded

Food is distributed from a parking lot after a series of storms on March 8, 2023 in Crestline, Calif.

Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

But the warm storm was raising concerns about rapid snowmelt in parts of the state’s significant snowpack. Authorities said creeks, streams and rivers could rise rapidly, increasing the threat of flooding.

On Wednesday, dozens of volunteers with the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Team Rubicon fanned out across the mountain community to clean up grave properties. A crew of 10 used shovels and snow blowers to clear the walkways and driveways belonging to Zagorski and his neighbors, who had been confined to their homes for more than a week.

The Los Angeles Times reported that helicopters were dropping hay into the air “to save thousands of California cattle starving in the snow.”

FILE PHOTO: Massive snow traps Californians

Residents of a mountain town in San Bernardino County, California, in March 2023, see communications towers covered in snow as a large amount of snow traps them.

David Swanson / Reuters

In Lake Arrowhead, home to 9,700 people and at an elevation of 5,175 feet, many roads were plowed Tuesday for the first time in 10 days, and some residents grumbled about the slow response. San Bernardino County officials estimated that more than 90% of the county’s roads had been plowed as of Tuesday night.

About 8 miles west, along a winding two-lane road, volunteers were excavating homes in Crestline, a working-class mountain community of 9,300 residents.

Don Black watched as a crew cleared his neighbor’s property with shovels. He was amazed to see the massive 12-foot snow berm left by the plow on the side of the road.

“This is the worst storm I’ve seen in 34 winters,” Black said, standing near a mound of snow that completely covered his pickup truck.

A team of state firefighters shoveled off the roof of the city’s library. A line of residents walked along the newly plowed road to pick up boxes of food at a distribution center.

Nearby, Big Bear City received more than 6.6 feet of snow in a seven-day period, the most since records were tracked, said Alex Tardy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego.

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