Snow blankets mountain hit by 2003 fires
BIG BEAR LAKE, Calif. – A sign welcoming visitors to the San Bernardino National Forest features a panicked Smokey the Bear with a wall of flames raging behind him.
“All because of a little match!” the sign warns visitors, invoking the near-constant fire threat in the drought-choked mountains east of Los Angeles.
But this week, the sign was covered with snow.
After months of worries that this could be the worst fire season ever, the danger has been buried – at least temporarily – under the surprising 24 inches of snow that have fallen since Wednesday.
People who were fleeing the catastrophic Southern California wildfires a year ago were unpacking skis and snowboards to enjoy the earliest snowfall in recent memory.
“This time last year we were getting evacuated,” Morgan Dominguez, 14, said as she picked up a pass at the Snow Summit ski resort.
“This year is gonna be awesome,” added her mother, Connie Dominguez.
Last October, the family packed up photographs and clothes and fled the mountain. They took their 14 horses but had to leave a cow and duck behind. Their house was still standing when they returned.
They were among the 80,000 residents evacuated last fall from the resort area of Big Bear – one of the hardest hit places in Southern California when waves of wildfires charred more than 750,000 acres, destroyed 3,650 homes and killed 24 people.
Snow Summit usually opens around Thanksgiving, but this year skiers and snowboarders will hit the slopes a day before Halloween, the earliest opening in about 30 years.
Bear Mountain, another resort, opened Friday – the earliest start in its half-century history, spokesman Brad Farmer said.
No one was expecting the early blanket of snow dropped by a big Alaska storm, but there were few complaints. Kids threw snowballs, residents took pictures of each other shoveling snow, and teenagers swamped the resorts earlier than planned to pick up job applications.
David and Cameron Barrett drove up from Newport Beach so Cameron could have a winter experience like the ones she missed after growing up in Providence, R.I. The snow finally convinced her California was the place to be.
“I’m gonna go home and dip my toe in the Pacific tonight,” she said as her yellow Labradors tromped through a pile of snow. “You can ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon.”
Firefighters and forest officials were also glad to see the snow. Throughout the year, they have raced desperately to thin deadwood and brush from the mountains, where at least a third of the trees have died from drought and bark beetle infestation.
Tony Ives, a rescue crew leader at Snow Summit, stood at the top of a peak and pointed down the mountain to an area where thousands of trees had been removed. He was heading a crew that put pads on ski lift chairs in preparation for the rush of customers expected Saturday.
A year ago, he led a crew trying to take down the same chairs so they wouldn’t be destroyed if fire raged through the resort.
He said the community has been on edge all year – until long-awaited rain finally fell earlier this month.
“You heard a fire truck down the road, and you’re like, oh my God, do we have to evacuate?” he said. “You’re listening for more fire trucks. In the middle of the night, in the day, any time at all. I don’t want to go through that again.”
In recent months, officials in Angeles and San Bernardino national forests set restrictions on open flames and closed some areas to prevent what many feared would be the worst fire season on record. The rain last week led them to lift the regulations and reopen.
Still, fire officials said the danger hasn’t completely passed.
In Northern and Central California, extra crews hired for the fire season have been sent home because of cool weather, said Janet Marshall, spokeswoman for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
But seasonal firefighters are still on the payroll in Southern California, where the fire risk routinely extend into winter.
“In Southern California I remember fighting fire down there on Christmas,” Marshall said. “Even in Northern California, I remember a fire on Thanksgiving where we had turkey on the fire line. You never can tell.”