CONTRA COSTA COUNTY, CA (April 20, 2023) — When local pilot Mike Grimes heard about folks trapped by snow in the mountains of San Bernardino County, he knew he wanted to help.
Grimes is a member of the Contra Costa County chapter of the California Disaster Airlift Response Team (CalDART) based in Concord. The statewide volunteer organization coordinates efforts by professional pilots who use their skills – and oftentimes their own planes and fuel – to help when disaster strikes.
As officials in Southern California worked to clear snow and open roads, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department had to restrict access for volunteer groups wanting to help because of hazardous conditions on the winding mountain roads. CalDART was one of the few groups that the department allowed in. A dozen or so CalDART members hopped in their planes and headed to the area.
Coordinating food delivery
Izzak Garcia of Pittsburg, a pilot trainee and ground worker at Buchanan Field Airport, joined Grimes, who was preparing to fly out of Concord.
“I was notified a day before my departure from Concord,” Garcia said. “I packed a day or two worth of clothes and snow gear. Then I met with Mike Grimes the following day to board his personal aircraft and head for San Bernardino. We arrived around mid-day to find the helicopters still making their rounds and CalDART, along with the police, highway patrol, firefighters and volunteers from local churches, still packing helicopters.”
The helicopters stocked the local hospitals with medicine and needed resources.
“We had helicopters available to take food, but no food,” said Grimes. “They had no driver for a big flatbed. So, I jumped in the truck and picked up a load of food from a local church. We loaded the food into a helicopter, along with snow shovels.”
Incident Commander Ron Lovick of San Diego DART tirelessly kept things organized in the air and on the ground. CalDART President Paul Marshall also had boots on the ground to help wherever possible.
Residents pull together
Susie Newman Harrison, a Lake Arrowhead resident, told the Pioneer she had about 12 feet of snow in front of her house. The roads to her home were impassable for 16 days, and even longer in some areas, as many smaller roads to people’s homes remained blocked after the main roadways had been cleared.
Harrison, along with Lisa Griggs and other locals, started messaging each other when they found themselves snowbound. With Griggs as the driving force, it took about a week to develop Operation Mountain Strong – which united about 500 residents.
“People came together to help organize getting food and medication. They also helped the elderly with shoveling snow,” she said. “Nothing like this has been done before. We don’t have an airport nearby, so everything had to come in by helicopter.”
That’s where CalDART and pilots like Grimes came in. Harrison called the volunteers “pretty impressive.”
Harrison can see the nearby hospital helipad from her property but could not get there due to unplowed roads. One of her neighbors made the arduous trek to get supplies by foot. It took 2½ hours.
With power out at many homes, the situation became desperate. Snow accumulation on rooftops was so heavy that some collapsed.
The CalDART volunteers dove in to help where they could. “We heard there was a local supermarket whose roof hadn’t caved in yet,” said Grimes. “I met David, another CalDART guy. We jumped on the roof and started shoveling. We had two snow blowers but couldn’t get them on the roof as they weighed 300 pounds. A couple of locals – a deacon of the local church named Ali and another guy named Ruben – helped us find a place to stay and drove us there for the evening. In the morning, they picked us up and brought us back to the roof.
“Some angels from SoCal Recovery showed up in Jeeps with big winches and asked how they could help. I yelled down from the roof: ‘Get those two snow blowers up here.’ ”
And they did, working as a team.
Creating a contact list
Meanwhile in Concord, Stephen Tucker was trying to get more aid to the snow-buried community. Tucker works with Pacific States Aviation CEO Rashid Yahya, who provides pilots, fuel and other support for Contra Costa’s DART volunteers.
Tucker spent three weeks making calls to politicians and local authorities to try to get help where it was needed. He worked diligently to find names and contact numbers to help with the flow of communication for those directing critical help and asking politicians throughout the state to do anything and everything that would facilitate collecting that data.
Tucker gathered many contacts and hopes his efforts will be useful for future incidents. “We all really need to work together.”
While snowbound, Harrison got the word out to help bring attention to the crisis. She is also a pilot and has now joined CalDART. Tucker says they’ve had a wave of new members looking to join.
As the snow in the region finally begins to melt, Tucker said many locals, though still digging themselves out from the string of storms, expressed their thanks to the volunteer pilots. One told Tucker: “When we heard the helicopter blades coming closer, we had hope.”
For more information on CalDART, visit www.CalDART.org. If you are interested in joining Contra Costa DART, contact Stephen Tucker, executive director CC DART/Concord and Byron airports, at 925-586-5977 or Stephenf4e@gmail.com. You can also connect by email at pilots4DART@gmail.com. For more information about Pacific States Aviation, visit http://www.psa.aero.