Heavy snow leaves Northern California residents stranded, ranchers unable to reach starving animals

Highway 101 in Mendocino County, before the road was closed on Feb. 23, 2023.  (Jayma Shields Spence)

The recent and seemingly unrelenting winter weather has buried parts of Mendocino County under massive amounts of snow, prompting road closures that have left dozens of people stranded, some of whom rescue crews have had trouble reaching because of the conditions. And with more snow on the way, the situation could get worse. 

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office told KTVU that since Friday, rescue teams have received multiple emergency calls, including many from the community of Laytonville, about 25 miles northwest of Willits. 

SEE ALSO: Yosemite National Park to remain closed till March 13 or longer

SEE ALSO: Severe winter storm closes Tahoe ski resorts, major highway

SEE ALSO: Snow survey: Confirmation of half of California out of official drought status

Over the weekend, deputies responded to a call from a motorist who said she had gotten stuck and stranded on Spy Rock Road, but they weren't able to bring her to safety, according to Captain Gregory VanPatten, the public information officer for the sheriff’s office.

"We tried on Sunday and were unable to rescue her due to the heavy snow conditions," VanPatten said. The rescue efforts continued on Monday, with some reinforcements-- heavy equipment including a Sno-cat, tracked utility task vehicle (UTV) and a bulldozer from the County Department of Transportation, which did the trick.

The woman, who was identified as Lisa Herbstritt by local media, had reportedly got stuck when she and her daughter went up Spy Rock Road to retrieve her mother who lived up in the hills.

Mendocino County rescue teams responded to Spy Rock Road area Laytonville, Calif. on Monday, March 6, to help those standed by the heavy snowfall. (Mendocino Couty Sheriff's Office)

On Monday, Herbstritt provided an update to her concerned community.

"I want To let everyone know that we are safe and sound," she shared on Facebook, adding that her daughter was safe too. She said that she was still in a state of shock from her ordeal, and she expressed her deep appreciation to the rescue workers as well as to her community. "You guys are the best and we’re so lucky to live in a community that cares so much. All of my thanks and love and gratitude."

Other emergency calls have come in from Laytonville, including one from an elderly man "in need of life sustaining medications," as well as a request for a welfare check on an elderly woman. The sheriff’s office also received a call from a stranded resident who reported running out of food and supplies. And another rescue request was received on Monday morning from a stranded woman in the area of Spy Rock Road, according to the sheriff’s office.

Sheriff’s officials said that the past few days have been busy with distress calls from people who were trapped as northern parts of county had been hit with significant amounts of snowfall within the last two weeks. 

"This has impacted travel abilities on our main highways/local roads and even residential driveways in rural higher elevation locations," VanPatten explained.

Sheriff Matt Kendall said the area's strong sense of community has been demonstrated during these challenges, as folks have been checking on the welfare of their neighbors. 

"The nice part of it is, in Mendocino County, we are still so rural, neighbors know neighbors, and neighbors look out for neighbors, the sheriff said. "But the issue is, everybody was ready for it for the first week, but supplies are beginning to dwindle now, and you know, we've had that series of storms come in. And you know, had it been three to five days, everybody would have been fine. But now that we're getting in that, you know 10, 11 date range. That's where it's getting tough," Kendall explained. 

Perhaps one of the most demonstrative acts of neighbors helping was on Feb. 23, when storms prompted the closure of Highway 101. Dozens of people found themselves stuck on the side of the road in Laytonville. 

That’s when a husband and wife, who run the Laytonville Healthy Start family resource center, turned the site into an emergency shelter, bringing in strangers, including children, the elderly, and those with health conditions, for warmth, food, and a place to stay for two nights.

"Over two days 40 came in and out. I'd say," shared Jayma Shields Spence, the executive directory of Healthy Start.

She said she received a call from the Laytonville Volunteer Fire Department asking if she could open the center to help take in motorists who were out in the storm and had nowhere to go.  

They said yes, uncertain of how the emergency would unfold.

"I think the first night everyone was in shock in terms of the situation," Shields Spence shared with KTVU. "Nobody had reliable information about if the snow was going to stop any time soon," she said, "or when the highway would reopen." 

As word got out that the center was open as a makeshift shelter, many turned to the Spences for help and answers. "People were kind of distraught," Shields Spence said. "People were calling here trying to find loved ones."

Laytonville Healthy Start in the community of Laytonville, Calif. was turned into an emergency shelter after motorists got stranded with the closure of Highway 101 in Mendocino County.  (Jayma Shields Spence)

She and her husband got into work mode and did what they could to make their stranded visitors feel comfortable and safe. 

(Jayma Shields Spence)

The couple scrapped together whatever blankets and cots they could find, setting up sleeping arrangements on couches, floors, anywhere that space would allow. They fed their visitors a warm, filling meal, and got the kids settled, setting them up with board games and other entertainment.

(Jayma Shields Spence)

Once the visitors felt safe and comforted, Shields Spence said she saw the worry and tension begin to fade away.

"People woke up the next morning and started expressing their gratitude toward us. They said, ‘We’re so grateful you opened the doors.’ One woman said, ‘You don't understand what this meant to me and my family,’" Shields Spence shared. One family promised to return the kindness with a donation to the center. 

One of the most stressful situations to face the Spences was having a woman stay with them who was returning home to Eureka after leaving Stanford Medical Center, where she had undergone an emergency heart procedure.

Shields Spence said you could see the fear on the face of the woman and her partner who was with her. "This woman was isolated in a town with no hospital-- the first one, 30 miles to the south. It would’ve been a treacherous ambulance ride." Shields Spence said this guest was her immediate priority.

"We got cots here, space heater, blankets, our priority was keep her stable and warm possible," she said, which they accomplished. 

Visitors were grateful for the generosity of Shields Spence and her husband, Roland Spence, and noted how incredible it was that they were able to provide the help with no advance notice and little to no outside support or resources. 

Shields Spence said it was an "unprecedented" situation for the area for as long as she’d been living there. She didn’t hesitate to act.

Jayma Shields Spence making coffee at 6 a.m. on Friday, Feb 24, 2023.  (Jayma Shields Spence)

"We're an unincorporated community, no city government here, really. So when we need to do something, it's up to us locals," she said, noting, "I've lived in Laytonville since I was 5 years old. By far, the worst I've seen it here."

The recent extreme weather has left many areas of California taking extreme and extraordinary measures as snow covered roads have affected not only humans but animals too.

On Sunday, March 5, 2023, the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay said it dropped 500 pounds to fields below in Humboldt County to help feed cows that ranchers could not reach due storm related road closures.  (U.S. Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay)

In neighboring Humboldt County, the road closures have led to desperate situations for ranchers who couldn't get food to their animals. 

U.S. Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay delivering hay to airdrop in open fields on Sunday, March 5, 2023.  (U.S. Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay)

"The record-breaking winter storms impacting California have left mountain roads across Humboldt County impassable for more than a week now, cutting off ranchers from their animals," the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay shared on Facebook on Sunday. 

So the agency partnered with the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office and the California Office of Emergency Services, Cal Fire, as well as local officials, and brought in special deliveries for the animals: 500 pounds of hay which were dropped down from the sky.

"With cattle beginning to starve," the Coast Guard said, "aircrew began air-dropping bales of hay to remote mountain fields to sustain the cattle until roads can be cleared."

(U.S. Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay)

Cal Fire said that roughly 1,400 head of cattle, as well as other livestock on about 25 different properties were at risk of starving due to lack of accessible roads to deliver feed. 

"Operation Bales Away" was not an easy one, but it worked, and the first round of the mission was a success.

"Despite challenging weather and bands of snow squalls moving through the area, the crew was able to reach six different fields and deliver 14 bales of hay to the hungry cows, with more scheduled as the weather clears," the Coast Guard wrote.

And with the heavy snowfall expected to remain a problem, Cal Fire said that the effort to get food to the animals was expected to continue through most of the week.

"This aid is essential to reduce the likelihood of continued livestock mortality that is occurring in the area because of the snowstorm," the agency said.

The work to keep the animals alive led to expressions of gratitude for the team. 

Facebook user Cathie Powers wrote, "Blessings to those men and women who can and have helped, this huge amount of odd and unexpected weather as impacted so many, huge salute to you all." 

A winter storm warning was in effect through Wednesday for many parts of the region, and emergency response teams were bracing to remain busy. 

The National Weather Service warned areas above 1,500 feet would face hazardous conditions that would continue to affect roadways, making travel "difficult to impossible." 

(U.S. Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay)

This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.