A messy cocktail of ice, cars and county contract concerns snarled the curvy mountain route into Pine Mountain Club in late December and, on Tuesday, put Kern County’s Public Works director on the spot.
Supervisor David Couch asked Craig Pope, who runs Public Works, what happened on Dec. 20 when the California Highway Patrol called for help from county roads workers and didn’t get it.
Roads covered in black ice needed snow plows and a scattering of volcanic cinders to make them passable.
Confessed Pope: “Nobody picked up their phone.”
Angry about the changes to overtime rules in a new county contract approved just the day before, he said, road workers decided not to take their supervisors’ after- hours calls.
So no help ever came from the county Roads Department for the 64 cars, nearly 100 stranded motorists, CHP and Kern County Sheriff’s officers and deputies, and Search and Rescue volunteers.
It won’t happen again, Pope said.
Chrystal Sandy was driving back up the mountain with her 8-year-old daughter, Ana Castillo, that Wednesday evening at around 5 p.m. when she came across an accident on steep Mil Potrero Highway.
They were on their way back from Ana’s dance class. It was “tap” night.
There had been some light rain earlier in the day and then, as the sun went down, the temperature dropped.
Mil Potrero, the main route up the mountain into Pine Mountain Club, iced over in large sections between Cuddy Valley Road and the bottom of the mountain enclave.
“They had a light rain and then it froze,” said Kern County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Coordinator Sgt. Zachary Bittle.
“I was in my van and it’s two-wheel drive,” Sandy said.
She had chains in the van but didn’t need them as she made her way home carefully, working around a Jeep that had stopped in the road and didn’t know how to get going again.
Then she came to the accident. A couple of cars had crashed into each other, sliding on the ice. Other drivers had stopped behind them.
“I stayed back and made room for the tow trucks and the CHP,” Sandy said.
But others didn’t wait.
“Then the people behind me went around. I don’t know what they were thinking,” she said.
They hit the ice too, and then started hitting each other.
“It was a big nightmare,” Sandy said.
Bittle said the California Highway Patrol started getting calls about icy conditions and accidents on the stretch between Cuddy Valley Road and Yellowstone Drive at around 5 p.m.
As units headed up the mountain they encountered the same black ice and also struggled to get to where they were going.
“One of our deputies actually lost traction and slid into another vehicle. Even with chains on it was still pretty slick,” Bittle said.
Reports started coming back that there were 50 to 80 vehicles stranded in black ice on that stretch of two-lane road.
The decision was made to close the road.
“Most of them are residents up there. I think the freeze just caught them off guard,” Bittle said. “They weren’t ready. They didn’t have chains.”
Sandy had a set of chains and, now, stuck on the mountain, strapped them on her tires. Careful driving could have gotten most people through, she said.
“We could have totally gone through it if we had four-wheel drive and chains,” she said.
But that’s not what happened.
Bittle said that when the scope of the mess came to light, he got the call to dispatch his Search and Rescue volunteers and seven people in four trucks headed up to help.
He and another deputy were in Rosamond and they drove over the mountains to Frazier Park to help.
The ice was invisible.
“I got out of my truck at one point and almost slipped on the roadway myself,” he said.
Tow trucks were called in.
But the road crew that’s stationed on the mountain didn’t show.
Pope said ice on the mountain road between Frazier Park and Pine Mountain Club is a common winter hazard, especially on that stretch of road.
“The road was built on the wrong side of the mountain — in the shade,” he said.
Rain and snow melt and freeze there.
Kern County Roads crews use volcanic cinders to help give vehicles traction on icy roads, Pope said, and those need to be spread twice a day for Pine Mountain Club residents to be able to get out of and into their community.
Many commute to Los Angeles for work and leave Pine Mountain Club at 4 a.m. and come back late in the evening.
Currently the county runs one daytime crew in the area, Pope said.
Any other work that must be done is accomplished on a call-out basis and employees are normally eligible for overtime.
But when the CHP called, Pope said, they didn’t get help.
Technically, he said, the call should have gone to a roads supervisor.
That didn’t happen.
They called the foreman of the Frazier Park area crew, Pope said, but he was out on family medical leave.
Still, that foreman picked up the phone and called his crew. Crickets.
So the foreman called his supervisor.
The supervisor tried several other roads employees — between six and 10, Pope said. None of them answered their phones.
Finally, he said, the supervisor called the CHP and told them what was going on.
By that time, Pope said, CHP said they had enough tow trucks and county roads workers wouldn’t be much help.
So why didn’t those workers pick up the call?
Pope told Kern County supervisors Tuesday that it was all about pay and benefit changes in a new union contract.
“Today we had a huge rain event,” Pope said. “At 3 a.m. they got the call and everybody responded. The difference was this week there is no holiday.”
The day before the mess near Pine Mountain Club the Kern County Board of Supervisors had approved a new memorandum of understanding with the Service Employees International Union that changed an important overtime rule.
Holiday hours aren’t computed into the calculation of when overtime work starts.
“Under the MOU they don’t get overtime credit for holidays,” Pope said. “We’re having employees that don’t want to go out in the middle of the night to plow snow for only straight time.”
Ironically, County Chief Human Resources Officer Devin Brown told the board, the contract change didn’t kick in until Dec. 23.
If the roads workers had answered their phones they would have been paid overtime.
Chrystal Sandy and her daughter were stranded in a perfectly functional vehicle for five hours that night in freezing temperatures.
“Because I was only going to be gone for an hour I didn’t have my jacket with me,” she said.
The woman in the car behind them invited them in to share the heat.
Sandy said she watched a CHP vehicle with chains on all four tires — pointless in a two-wheel drive — slide into the mountainside.
If the road had been closed quickly, she said, other drivers wouldn’t have piled into the mess and made the problem worse. But eventually, Sandy said, the law enforcement teams realized they just needed to get people to safety.
“Five hours later they said ‘enough’ and made people leave their cars,” she said.
Bittle said people were driven home or to shelter at the clubhouse in Pine Mountain Club and his volunteers were at it until 1 or 2 a.m.
Nobody involved had serious injuries.
Sandy said she got home around 10:30 p.m.
“Thank God for the Search and Rescue. They were pretty awesome,” she said. “They picked us up and took us home.”
In the morning Kern County Roads crews went to work and the tow trucks from at least three different companies were on the mountain pulling cars out of the tangle on Mil Potrero Highway.
Residents were not happy as their vehicles were taken hither and yon.
“I was forced to leave my car there,” Sandy said. “Mostly people were upset that our cars were towed.”
Supervisor Couch, who had learned of the problem through Facebook posts the night before, worked with the Roads Department to come up with a solution for residents and travelers.
“We arranged for the tow truck companies not to send the bills to the people,” he said. “County Roads is taking care of that for them.”
Six to 10 people couldn’t get home that night and had to stay at hotels, Couch said. Roads will pay for those hotel stays through a reimbursement, he said.
“The reason I felt we needed to step up for that is that it’s possible that the roads weren’t plowed and maintained like they should have been,” he said.
The county is looking at adding a second crew to the area to handle cinder spreading and snow plowing, Pope said.
And Brown said they are exploring changing the rules for the road workers to allow them to receive pay for being on-call for emergency situations.
But for now, Pope said, he’s arranged for backup.
“We’ll make sure this works,” Pope said. “We have a contractor who will respond. It’ll cost a lot of money but this will not happen again.”
“We’re working on more of a longer-term solution to make sure that no matter what the weather is like, those roads will be maintained,” Couch said. “If county workers don’t want to do it, that’s unfortunate. But we’ll find a way to get it done.”