No one can deny that Southern California’s 2018 Monsoon Season has been one heck of a lalapalooza. When our neighbor, retired school principal Tom Reynolds left his home in the high desert on July 12, 2018 to visit his adult son at his other home in Big Bear City, he had no idea he would soon face nature’s fury on State Highway 18. Tom was behind the wheel of his white Honda Ridgeline heading towards Big Bear just like he’d done countless times. Big Bear was always a welcome respite from the intense desert heat and a little rain would be refreshing.
It was cloudy, especially towards the top of the mountain, but Tom wasn’t concerned as the skies were barely spitting where he was. However, a stationary thunderstorm cell had already been dumping heavy rain over Big Bear for more than an hour.
After Tom passed by the Mitsubishi Cement Plant on his right-hand side at about 12:30 p.m. and continued his well-beaten path, he was suddenly confronted with an astonishing sight. A surreal wall of mud and debris careened down the road toward him. Tom put “Turn around, don’t drown” to its ultimate test. He quickly glanced in his rear view mirror, and seeing no one behind him, thrust his car into reverse in an attempt to escape the barrage of debris hurtling towards him. For a few seconds, it looked like his egress succeeded.
But the mudslide was faster than Tom. It roared past him on both sides of his car as Tom stared helpless out his windows as mud, boulders and trees churned in the water and mud like discarded children’s toys. “I felt my car float for a moment before it lodged on a little island of debris which somehow saved me,” Tom recalled. But Tom still couldn’t drive away. He knew he was there for its duration. He called 9-1-1 but did not have a strong signal. All Tom could do was watch the thick liquid rise toward his windows.
Tom estimated he sat in his vehicle for about 15 minutes before he noticed the flashing lights of CHP and a fire truck down the road. It seemed like he was the only one who was swallowed by the massive mudslide. He thought about his recently deceased wife of many years and wondered if he’d be seeing her soon. The idea somehow comforted him.
Suddenly, a lifted 4X4 truck bounced down the side of the hillside towards him, dodging boulders and dislodged trees in its path because the road was completely impassable. “It was like watching a horror movie,” Tom recollected. Somehow the truck made it through the gauntlet to the first responders at the edge of the slide.
The experience of mudslides may be nothing new to the San Bernardino Mountains but it was certainly new to Tom, especially since he had a front-row seat to its feral power and unleashed devastation. The most serious flooding stranded a reported 32 vehicles along Highway 18 between Big Bear and Lucerne Valley starting just after 12:30 p.m., according to CHP reports. The area that was most affected was between the Mitsubishi concrete facility and Johnson Creek, CHP spokesman Officer Chris Carter reported.
“There’s about a [two and a half miles] stretch of highway that’s impassable,” Carter said. One of the main sections of mud was about 5 feet deep by 80 feet wide, according to Carter.
“It was just like a wall of mud, rushing by. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” David Williams, who was headed up to Big Bear when the flash flood first hit, told the Daily Press as he waited for the roadway to clear near the Mitsubishi plant.
The mudslide initially was to said to measure about 20 feet across, but officials and several motorists left stranded reported seeing mud flows up to five feet tall as the storm raged.
David Williams said his father was also making the trip and got caught “right in the middle” of the most intense mudslides. You guessed it, Tom is David’s Dad. Officials later said no vehicles were actually stuck, but instead stranded due to the impermeable mud flows. No occupants were trapped and no injuries were reported.
San Bernardino County Fire officials reported that the worst of the flood waters had subsided by 2:30 p.m. — but it took crews hours to completely clear the mud-choked roadway. Highway 18 was reported to be open and clear as of 5 p.m., according to Caltrans officials. Even weeks later, the clean-up continued.
In January 2005, that same patch of highway between Lucerne Valley and Big Bear was closed for two months for repairs due to a massive mudslide which washed away a huge swath of road.
State Highway 18 in Lucerne Valley wasn’t the only place experiencing mudslides. Camp Rock Road north of Highway 18 was also completely washed out. On the other side of the mountain, Deputy Franklin, with the assistance of a water truck, rescued an 87 year old female from the rushing water at Oak Creek and Valley of the Falls Rd. [in Forest Falls] when caught in debris flow.
Artic Circle near the Big Bear Dam in the town of Big Bear Lake was also closed due to a mud and rock slide blocking Highway 18. At one point, most of the major roads to Big Bear were closed at the same time due to mudslides caused by the relentless thunderstorm.
Tom recalled the police and firemen stayed at the perimeter of the debris flow as the mudslide ebbed. Soon bulldozers arrived to dig him from the muck. Once Tom was back on terra firma, he had his dirty car towed to Valley Hi Honda in Victorville. He figured it was totaled. Mechanics inspected Tom’s car and reported that although encrusted mud had to be cleaned out from underneath his car, no permanent damage from the mudslide had occurred. The body and motor were thankfully intact.
After sharing his harrowing tale, the dealership decided not to charge Tom for the service. What had started out as a terrifying adventure ended happily with no loss of life or property.