Residents Fret Over Deaths in San Bernardino Mountains During Snow

The power had been out for a week with snow to the rafters in Crestline when the neighbors found 93-year-old Elinor “Dolly” Avenatti bundled up in a chair in front of her fireplace, which had gone cold. Barbie Hughes, 39, the clerk at the local hardware store, was hit by a vehicle on a dark, snow-covered road just after midnight near Big Bear Lake; she died at the hospital.

Alden Park Thayer, 85, an Air Force veteran, a man of faith and a retired professional baker, died at his Lake Arrowhead home as the snow drifts outside piled up to 10 feet, then 14 feet. His daughter, Lisa Thayer, had sat by his side singing “How Great Thou Art.”

The roads were impassable, and the emergency officials said it would be a week until they could retrieve his body, and so, Ms. Thayer said, for the next five days it lay on a mattress with a pillow and blanket in the garage.

As the mountain communities of Southern California braced for an incoming atmospheric river, local authorities, stunned survivors and close-knit neighbors began to sort out the toll from a staggering, two-week onslaught of snow.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday that it had “responded to 13 death investigations”; of those, eight were being reviewed for potential links to the powerful storm that engulfed the forested Alpine hamlets of the San Bernardino Mountains in late February. One of the 13 deaths was immediately deemed to be directly related to the winter weather, officials said.

But it was unclear how many more lives had been lost because of contributing, blizzard-related factors, such as blocked roads, downed power lines or critical medical care that could not be summoned. At a City Council meeting this week in Big Bear Lake, city officials said that more than seven feet of snow had fallen there in 15 days; hospital officials said that “tragedies” had happened because of the weather, citing access to dialysis treatments as a particular concern.

Gary DeFrench, a contractor in Crestline, said that one of his neighbors, a woman in her 80s, died last week in her home after a fall and was not found for days. “Some of those people are on roads that are very narrow and way out in the boonies,” he said.

Near Ms. Avenatti’s home, an all-electric cabin built in 1964 that she nicknamed “High Dolly,” neighbors who had been socked in for weeks wondered how many more people were isolated and in need of help.

“I’m sure they haven’t found everyone yet,” said Rhea-Frances Tetley, 72, whose home is across the street from that of Ms. Avenatti, whose body was recovered just as the power was restored Monday. “I only was just able to get out of my house yesterday afternoon, and it took two strong men to dig out the driveway.”

ImageThe San Bernardino County, Calif., Sheriff’s Office said that it had no indication that the weather or lack of food played a role in the deaths of people found in their homes.Credit…Eva Hambach/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The painful search comes as yet another storm system descends on California, with forecasters warning of floods and widespread downpours. At high elevations, the rain was expected to be absorbed by the snowpack, but the additional weight could pose its own hazards. Already, roofs have collapsed in the area, damaging vacation houses and shutting down some businesses.

“I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, so I’ve seen snow storms,” said Mr. DeFrench, who has lived for 20 years in the San Bernardino Mountains. “But nothing like this. This is unbelievable.”

Local authorities said that at least one death, that of Ms. Hughes, appeared clearly to be storm-related. Ms. Hughes died at Bear Valley Community Hospital on Feb. 26, a night on which city records show a foot of snow falling on the area in just 24 hours.

“She was just a super sweetheart,” said Marshall Tietje, 39, a handyman and local artisan in Big Bear Lake, adding that he had been a customer at the store where she worked “and had been at her check stand probably a hundred times.”

Four more people who died, including Mr. Thayer, were under hospice care or in the hospital, according to the sheriff’s office. The coroner does not appear to be reviewing these deaths.

On Thursday, the sheriff’s office said in a news release that it had opened investigations into the causes of death for eight people who were discovered dead in their homes, mostly after neighbors or loved ones called for someone to check on them.

There was Ms. Avenatti, who the department said had “a significant medical history” but who, according to neighbors, had refused entreaties to take shelter with them, insisting that she had seen worse in her years on the mountain.

Another victim, a 77-year-old man, was last known to be alive on the night of Feb. 28; after family members were unable to reach him by phone on March 2, they asked for a welfare check, according to the sheriff’s office. Deputies weren’t able to get to him that day and returned to retrieve his body a day later.

“There was no indication the weather or a lack of food or resources contributed to the death, only delayed removal from the home,” the department said, using similar phrasing for the other deaths under investigation.

On Feb. 28, in Wrightwood, family members asked a friend to check on a 65-year-old woman who had “flulike symptoms.” The friend found her dead in her home.

On March 2, a landlord found his tenant, a 77-year-old woman, dead on the floor of her downstairs apartment in Crestline after seeing her alive a week before. A day later, a 62-year-old man was found dead at his home in Big Bear Lake after he had told neighbors he was feeling sick. He didn’t respond when they tried to check on him a few days later.

These deaths, too, the sheriff’s office said, did not initially appear to be related to a lack of food or resources.

In a brief accounting of each case still under investigation, the authorities said every one of the eight deaths appeared to be “natural.” The sheriff’s department, which also serves as the county coroner’s office, said there was no evidence to suggest that the victims died because they might have been trapped in their homes.

But other snowbound locals said that, while they understood that officials were dealing with an unusually fierce act of nature, they didn’t believe that the weather wasn’t a factor in the deaths.

“That’s absolutely not true,” said Carola Hauer, a Running Springs resident who, at 71, said she had “out-shoveled everyone here” for the past two weeks.

Ms. Hauer, a psychologist, said she didn’t wish to assign blame. But she said she hoped officials and communities would learn and be better prepared.

“We probably should have raised the emergency flag a little sooner,” she said.

Ms. Thayer, who was snowed in with her father’s body for days, said that she was trying not to think about the future — how she must soon sell her father’s house, which had been under a reverse mortgage contract. She was keeping a wary eye on the fine cracks in her ceiling that appeared after the blizzard heaped snow onto her roof and said she was trying not to panic.

She said she had taken heart in the kindness of her neighbors, the warmth of her community.

At one point after her father died, a neighbor asked if she needed anything. Ms. Thayer replied jokingly: “A box of L’Oreal and a pizza.” A short time later, after her neighbor’s husband had managed to make it to the store, he walked over to her and handed her a bag.

In it were a L’Oreal box dye and a pizza.

“You know,” Ms. Thayer said, “what saves this mountain is the people that live on it.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.