Sean Devine works to find his way to Sherrill Waton’s house as he delivers food in Cedar Glen, California, on Monday, March 6, 2023. (Photo: Jeff Gritchen/Orange County Register/SCNG)
The large and growing volunteer-led relief effort, operating for days out of parking lots and living spaces and now dubbed “Operation Strong Mountain”, has brought food and essential supplies to people stranded in snow and stranded on their home in the San Bernardino Mountains, amid criticism from some that law enforcement and other local government agencies did not act during the crisis.
Nearly two weeks after the record-breaking storm dumped more than seven feet of snow in several mountainous areas, many residents remain trapped in their homes. They wrote messages in the snow. They pleaded and begged on local Facebook groups for rescuers to dig them up.
While there is a county-run rescue operation with a glossy badge and a command center, it’s the unpaid efforts led by locals in grocery store parking lots and Facebook Messenger groups that some residents say are getting the job done.
“None of us are getting paid to do this,” said Lisa Griggs, a Lake Arrowhead resident and one of the main local aid organizers. “We are just a community. We have no experience in this… it’s just community.”
The effort, dubbed “Operation Strong Mountain” by organizers, is a collaboration between local churches, businesses and dozens of volunteers — who say they mostly carry it out themselves.
“We don’t have a lot of cooperation from the sheriff, county, or state,” said Crestline resident and Operation Strong Mountain organizer Max Strawn. “If anything, they have created an obstacle.”
Relief efforts organized by volunteers are largely separate from those organized by the County of San Bernardino. Hotlines organized by districts have seen mixed results and many complaints.
Some organizers have noticed a limited presence from the Sheriff’s Department, and are hesitant to work with volunteer groups who, they say, appear to be efficiently delivering supplies.
“It’s sad. We have animals on the loose, people who can’t get a cure,” said Dawn Diggle, another organizer of Operation Strong Mountain. “Where do we see sheriffs? I’ve seen one (California Highway Patrol officer) escort a truck to here in 12 days, and that’s it. I didn’t see the sheriff. The only people I saw were firefighters.”
Operation Mountain Strong has collaborated primarily with Sandals Church in San Bernardino, using their parking lot as a base of operations. Over the past few days, volunteers have arranged trips from the church to the mountain community by car, foot and helicopter. The group has created a detailed map with dozens of possible home addresses worth digging or checking.
The helicopters came primarily from CalDART, a non-profit organization that sends volunteers in privately owned helicopters to disaster zones in need of humanitarian assistance. 10 helicopters have registered with CalDART to assist so far, with another private helicopter assisting.
After a brief miscommunication with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, the organization was able to deploy helicopters carrying hundreds of pounds of supplies up the mountain.
“Collaborating with the sheriff on day one was a bit difficult,” said CalDART president Paul Marshall. “This is a good conversation. Everyone wants to operate safely. Everyone has different input.”
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department could not be reached Monday for comment. County officials and local law enforcement officials have said before that they were doing all they could to ensure residents’ safety after the storm.