Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Wednesday, March 8 @ 4:50 p.m. / Community, Emergencies, Weather

Snowbound Residents in Del Norte's Interior Help Each Other; OES, Search & Rescue Deploy Sno-Cat

Many off-grid residents are snow-bound after a winter storm dumped 4-6 feet of the white stuff in Del Norte's interior. | Photo courtesy of Sierra Mackenzie Smith

Most off-grid residents in Del Norte's interior are used to a light dusting of snow that's soon melted.

But after a winter storm buried them in 4-6 feet of the white stuff, many residents are reaching out to see if their neighbors need help using skies, snowshoes and plows.

Sierra Makenzie Smith, who moved to the Low Divide Road area full-time in August, said she and her family have been snowed in for several days. On Wednesday, she and her partner were able to plow through a driveway full of downed trees and 5 feet of powder to help another couple who haven't been able to leave their home in a week.

"People have NEVER seen this much snow here," Smith told the Wild Rivers Outpost via Facebook messenger. "It's been discussed and a resident living here for 40 years confirmed he has never seen this much!"

Smith and about 20 other Low Divide area residents have been communicating via a text message chain her neighbor, Kristen Zumeta, coordinates. Some rely on Facebook to keep in touch and residents are using a barter system to make sure they and their neighbors have needed resources.

Propane and gasoline are the two major necessities, Smith said.

“Today, Ben Zumeta, a resident, skied down to Feather Canyon (residents) to bring them gas and snow shoes,” Smith told the Wild Rivers Outpost, referring to a forest service road that’s not maintained by Del Norte County. “My guy, Matt, today went to help folks at 4-and-a-half miles who are stuck with a frozen vehicle and running out of gasoline. He was able to get them to Hiouchi to refill (their) tanks and get them back up. Our other neighbors had their barn collapse from heavy snow and their woodstove pipe busted also! Low Divide residents are offering any extra supplies to one another, sharing that info in a group chat.”

Del Norte Search & Rescue personnel braved 4-6 feet of snow to get off-grid residents to safety on Wednesday | Photo courtesy of Garrett Scott

The Del Norte County Office of Emergency Services and the Del Norte County Search & Rescue team has also provided relief for those who are snowed in.

With a Sno-Cat from the Curry County Sheriff's Office, a team of about 15 Del Norte Search & Rescue volunteers and three Del Norte County Sheriff's deputies are checking on residents. They have evacuated three to four people, Sheriff Garrett Scott told the Outpost at about 5:24 p.m. Wednesday.

Many people want to stay on their property and shovel snow off their roofs so they don't cave in, Scott said.

"One of the worst areas that we had to get down into was the Copper Creek drainage, which is on the Rowdy Creek side out of Smith River," he said. "And that was about 8 feet of snow at 5 miles up, so we had to use the Sno-Cat to get up over the top of that mountain and down into the old Copper Creek mining site. There's a cabin there and we had to get a person out of there."

Scott said he received reports from the Del Norte County Office of Emergency Services at about 10 a.m. People were running out of food and other necessities, he said, and one resident had reported that the shed housing their generator collapsed.

"A large majority of these people are very off-grid savvy, so they're prepared for this type of thing," Scott said. "But then there are others, who maybe recently moved up (there) or some that are living in RVs and are not set up for this cold temperature."

At about 2:30 p.m., Del Norte Emergency Services Coordinator Deborah Otenburg told the Outpost that she had fielded a number of calls for people requesting either resources or rescue. At that point one person had called her cell phone needing to be taken to safety, she said.

 “At this time we’re focusing on rescue and we are asking anybody who thinks they’re short on supplies to go ahead and request a rescue so we can get them out of there,” Otenburg said.

Emergency personnel don’t want to bring supplies into the area over a period of multiple days only for residents to realize later they needed a rescue. She said she posted her cell phone number on Facebook so Del Norte County dispatch isn’t overwhelmed with calls.

Though Otenburg said she spoke with five people, only one said they needed a rescue. The Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office fielded two more requests for people asking to be rescued, Otenburg said.

Otenburg is hearing primarily from those who live in off-grid homes, trailers or buses and rely on propane or wood for heat. Most have had several weeks of supplies on hand, but because the roads aren’t passable, those several weeks are up for many people, she said.

“At this point they are starting to get a little bit worried,” Otenburg said.

Those who do need a rescue are asked to wait a few days before returning to their homes in the mountains, Otenburg said. She said many residents have people in Crescent City that they can bunk with for a short period of time.

Meanwhile, the snow level is expected to rise from about 1,500 feet to 4,000 feet Thursday evening and then drop back down to 2,500 feet by early Friday morning, said National Weather Service meteorologist Matthew Kidwell.

A winter storm watch will be issued for the Del Norte County interior, including Gasquet and U.S. 199 at the Collier Tunnel for late Thursday night through Friday evening. Eight to 12 inches of snow is possible above 2,500 feet, Kidwell said.

Areas below 2,500 feet could get 2-3 inches of rain, he said.

Meteorologists don’t expect a lot of runoff and flooding with this impending storm system, Kidwell said. But the weight of cold rain on top of an existing snow pack could create structural issues for residents.

“Rain, especially when it’s fairly cold rain, isn’t all that efficient at melting snow, so it’s not really going to be causing a lot of runoff and flooding problems,” he said. “The snow pack could absorb quite a bit of it, but one thing that happens is if you do have a structure that’s got a snow pack on its roof it could get a bunch more weight if you add rain to your snowpack. So it could damage roofs possibly.”

Otenburg added that she’s been watching the California-Nevada River Forecast Center to see if the Smith and Klamath rivers are likely to cause impacts. The Smith River at the Dr. Fine Bridge is expected to reach its highest level of 19 feet between Sunday and Monday — about 8 feet below monitor stage.

“We’re in pretty good shape,” she said.

Like Smith, Scott said long-time residents have told him that 5 feet of snow is almost unprecedented for the Low Divide Road area. This much snow hasn't been seen in that area since the early 1980s, he said.

The Del Norte Road Department is working to grade many of the forest service roads in the area, but they can't deal with 5 feet of snow, Scott said.

"They graded the road clear up to 8 miles up Low Divide and made it to an intersection and then had to kind of clar a turn-around spot where we could get the Sno-Cat and rescue teams in," he said. "And that's as far as they could make it."

Up on Low Divide, residents continue to work together to make sure their neighbors are taken care of, Smith said. 

“The residents up here are resilient and heart-full — a little mountain community of true social security," she said.


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