Winter can go from wonderful to woeful for those unprepared


For hundreds of students who found themselves trapped at sleep-away science camps in the San Bernardino mountains as a rare winter blizzard descended on Southern California, being snowbound for a few extra days was probably great fun.

As 12-year-old Fletcher West, one of the students from Irvine, said to CBS News, “Some people were sad, I was mostly happy.”

However, for those not stranded in professionally run, well-stocked camps, being “in the weather,” was less enjoyable. And if you choose to venture into a winter wonderland without being prepared, an adventure can become an avalanche of disaster.

Local public safety sites like ReadyOC, Orange County’s leading preparedness resource, can be invaluable during unprecedented natural and man-made disasters. Their website offers a variety of emergency preparedness tips including how to pack an emergency kit, as well as how to plan for potentional disaster situations. Other national organizations, like the Red Cross and, also have winter preparedness tips, checklists and readiness options.

Many residents in towns such as Lake Arrowhead, Crestline and Big Bear found themselves stranded for more than a week before roads were cleared. In addition, a number of stores in those towns experienced roof cave-ins, making food availability scarce.

Susan Lovell and her husband, John McLaughlin, moved to Lake Arrowhead five years ago and were stranded in their home for two weeks during the recent storm. Luckily, they were prepared, having stocked up on food.

“We’re among the ‘lucky ones’ in that no power or heat sources have been affected nearby,” Lovell wrote in an email on March 7, the day before snowplows finally arrived on her street.

“We had about 6 feet on our two decks,” she added. “Lots of folk besides us were snowed in.”

“It has been exhausting,” McLaughlin added, “and we’re still digging out and preparing for rain this weekend and possible flooding.”

Lovell said she was thankful that neighbors banded together to help one another and set aside personal and political differences.

“It’s truly been an amazing experience/winter disaster, and hopefully, there will be some planning for the ‘next disaster’ ahead of time,” Lovell said.

Even as mountain residents were breathing a sigh of relief, forecasters worried another atmospheric river system was aimed at California.

The new warmer system, formerly called “pineapple express,” is raising concerns that rain would fall atop the state’s snowpack, first in Northern California, then sliding south on Friday and into Saturday, increasing the danger of flooding and structural damage. And a second system could arrive early in the week. Local emergency preparedness organization ReadyOC, includes several tips on how to react and prepare for flooding situations.

However, Dave Houk, Senior Meteorologist at, said, “The good news is the core of the rainfall will be around half-inch to one inch.”

He predicted the existing snowfall should be able to absorb that without major runoff. However, the weight of rain on top of roofs that are still covered with snow could cause problems.

Houk said models for the second system are conflicted.

“There’s going to be another storm, it’s just a matter of when,” he said. Houk noted that residents should be alert and pay attention to the details and nuances in their specific areas when analyzing threats and preparations.

The mountains surrounding Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties have already experienced unprecedented storms and snowfall. But even in milder seasons, anyone traveling to and over the mountains by car should be prepared. Changes in altitude can dramatically increase the difficulties and dangers of inclement weather. If you are visiting the mountains for an extended period it pays to be ready and wary should conditions warrant.

Check weather forecasts

Before venturing into the mountains, check and understand weather forecasts. A winter storm warning is issued when hazardous weather with heavy snow, freezing rain or sleet are imminent within 12 to 24 hours; a winter storm watch alerts to the possibility of hazardous conditions within 12 to 48 hours; and advisories are given when amounts of snow, sleet or rain could cause inconveniences. Pay heed to any of these as they develop.

Bring chains

Anyone driving in snow country should have snow chains and/or cables ready. Chains may be required for all vehicles on some or all roads. Not all snow chains are created equal, so consider the kinds of uses and conditions you may face.

According to Forbes, “Different tire chain patterns excel in different situations. Diagonal chains work for vehicles with traction control, while square chains work better for extra traction and longevity. Tire cables and traction socks are good alternatives for vehicles with limited clearance between the tire and the suspension or body.” Although the latter may provide less handling and traction.

Before you leave, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with installation and practice at home. It will save you stress if you have to install the chains for the first time in snowy conditions.

Make sure you buy chains that will fit your tire and rim size. Know which tires on which to place the chains: front for front-wheel drive, rear wheels for rear-wheel, four-wheel or all-wheel drive cars. For extra safety and traction you may want to put chains on all four wheels. Do not use chains on bare pavement and drive no more than 25-30 miles per hour.

Many owners of pick-up trucks were raised being told to put weight in the back of a truck to improve traction. That’s not always true anymore. However, that advice still holds for rear-wheel drive trucks, while front-wheel, all-wheel and four-wheel models don’t need the added weight and the practice may even throw off computers in all-wheel models. For those adding weight, a general rule of thumb is 240-300 pounds centered over the drive wheels for a half-ton pick-up and 300-400 pounds for a three-quarter to one-ton pick-up.

Emergency car kits

Various preparedness sites advise that people avoid traveling in winter weather. If you become stuck or stranded in your car, call for emergency help and stay in the car. If travel is necessary, here is what you should have as an emergency kit.  

  • Cell phone, portable charger, cables, and extra batteries
  • Items to stay warm such as extra hats, coats, mittens, and blankets
  • Windshield scraper
  • Shovel
  • Battery-powered radio with extra batteries
  • Flashlight with extra batteries
  • Water and snack food
  • First aid kit with any necessary medications and a pocket knife.
  • Canned compressed air with sealant for emergency tire repair and a full spare tire
  • Cat litter, sand, road salt or traction pads to help tires get traction if you’re stuck
  • Booster cables with fully charged portable battery or jumper cables
  • Hazard or other reflectors.

Car maintenance

Make sure maintenance service on your vehicle is up to date, including:

  • Proper levels of antifreeze, windshield-wiper fluid (winter mixture), brake fluid
  • Make sure the tires on your car have adequate tread and air pressure
  • Keep the gas tank near full to help avoid ice in the tank and fuel line.

Check the heater, defroster, brakes, ignition, emergency flashers, exhaust, oil, and battery.

Hunkering down at home

If you live in the mountains or are staying at a cabin for an extended time, you may need to hunker down and wait out the weather. Unless absolutely necessary, do not venture out during a storm and risk being stranded, either in a vehicle or on foot. Here are some suggestions to help you be ready.

  • Store up on water in case services are lost. Preparedness experts recommend at least one gallon per person per day of drinking water and one gallon per person for sanitation. Calculate the amount you need for the duration of the storm and then double it.
  • Have plenty of food on hand, including for pets. In case you lose power, it’s important to have nonperishables and food that requires no preparation: granola bars, trail mix, crackers, fruit, etc. Many soups and canned foods can be served straight from the can if necessary.
  • Before a storm arrives, make sure you have needed medications for an extended time.
  • Keep warm. If you lose power, there are options for indoor heating without power. Make sure, however, that the heat source is safe. Never use a heater inside your home that is not rated for indoor use. Also check for and block sources where heat may escape, such as doors and windows.
  • Don’t overexert yourself, especially if you have health risks. Overexertion is a leading cause of death during snow emergencies. Many residents in San Bernardino shoveled driveways only to be confronted with impassable roads.
  • Generators can be helpful when the power goes out. However, it is imperative to know how to use them safely to prevent carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning and other hazards. Generators and fuel should always be used outdoors and at least 20 feet away from windows, doors and attached garages.
  • Clear snow from gas meters around homes to prevent structure fires. Several blazes broke out during the Southern California storms according to officials.

Properly prepared, a winter storm can be a magical time to hunker down, curl up and enjoy the outdoor show. But it is critical to remain ready. Or as Stephen King put it, “there’s no harm in hoping for the best as long as you’re prepared for the worst.”