Joint Task Force Rattlesnake is rescuing snowbound Californians

A team used to battling wildfires has removed more than 1 million pounds of snow in the San Bernardino Mountains.
California National Guard members in safety vests and hard hats checking on houses and people buried in snow
Members of the California National Guard's Joint Task Force Rattlesnake go door to door to help people trapped in the San Bernardino Mountains. Courtesy of California National Guard

This article was originally featured on Task & Purpose.

Amid severe winter storms that have left parts of California flooded or trapped under feet of snow, the California National Guard is taking part in rescue efforts. That includes ongoing work to get supplies to people trapped in the snow covered San Bernardino Mountains, where many have been snowed in for two weeks.

Sixty California National Guard soldiers, part of Joint Task Force Rattlesnake, are deployed to the mountains, which include the towns of Lake Arrowhead, Crestline and Big Bear Lake. They’re helping local agencies as well as Caltrans and Cal Fire reach people who have been trapped for days. Heavy storms hit much of California hard last month. In the San Bernardino Mountains—with only limited access up and down, residents were unable to get down from their homes for days. Many were without power, and limited supplies. 

Snow plows only operated in a limited capacity, and it’s only in the last week that they have been able to get down the highway. Travel in and between mountain towns remains difficult, as roads remain blocked or partially blocked, and many people have to walk from their snow-covered homes in order to get to clear roads. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for the area on March 1 and the National Guard went into action. After more than a week of work, they and local partners have set up supply distribution centers spread out around the mountains (many stores remain closed; one grocery store in Crestline had its roof cave in from the weight of the snow). They’ve also been going house to house to try and reach people. 

“The primary goal was snow removal from private property from homes that had elderly individuals that were in danger of collapsing,” Chloe Castillo, a spokesperson for Cal Fire, told Task & Purpose. “They cleared off snow from critical infrastructure, including the Crestline post office, and a large hotel at Lake Arrowhead Village, the location that was housing a large number of first responders. They ended up removing […] 1.1 million lbs. of snow.”

Joint Task Force Rattlesnake typically deploys during the state’s fire season, helping to fight wildfires and evacuate people. The dozens of National Guard soldiers mobilized after the storms instead have to deal with floods and ice. 

The rescue efforts are expected to continue for several more days. Many residents still choose to walk to these places instead of driving as not only are side streets blocked but many cars remain trapped under layers of snow. It’s not clear exactly how many people in total have been injured or killed by the storm in the area.

An additional challenge is that since rescue efforts started, a new storm, driven by an atmospheric river, hit Southern California starting on Thursday, March 9. It is expected to last several days, dropping 1.5-2 inches of precipitation on the area. The added weight of rain on top of snow could add additional pressure on buildings, presenting structural risks. 

That need has been exacerbated by this week’s storms. Roughly 100 additional California National Guard soldiers are currently responding to flooding in other parts of the state, including Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, using high water vehicles to reach people in danger. In the last several days the National Guard has helped in 56 rescues, according to the force. They have also assisted in aid and supply efforts in the state as well. The latter has included airdropping hay for cows in northern Humboldt County.