Winter snow and rain has cloaked Mono County for weeks. More than cloaked. Splintered. North County and South County indefinitely separated by an avalanche – 395 north of Lee Vining.
Such weather begets communication. Good Messaging reaches people and saves lives. Bad Messaging plummets to the social algorithm nethers.
During these weather emergencies, Mono County Sheriff Ingrid Braun and the Sheriff’s Department have attempted Good Messaging on their Instagram account “@monosheriff”. Witty, sometimes sassy social posts warn users to stay off the roads and take shelter – like this post from February 25: “As the snow continues to fall, the roads continue to be closed. This includes all of your backroads, shortcuts, and ‘local’ alternate routes. Many drivers tried Benton Crossing and ended up spending the night stuck in their cars … If 395 is closed due to snow, then all of the other routes are impassable as well. Don’t compound the problem by getting yourself stuck, thus diverting resources to get you unstuck. You can wait it out with everyone else.”
The post did numbers: 732 likes. 300-400 more likes than the typical post. Her post was quoted by Nora Mishanec of the San Francisco Chronicle in the article, “‘It’s a blizzard, people’: This California county shut down in the sassiest way possible.”
The post’s audience reach might have inspired Braun and her staff to lean into their innate creativity. Other posts include a March 3rd message about propane tanks – “Your propane tank called – it’s suffocating…” – and a comical WANTED! Poster of the Snow Miser (owner of the Northern Territories) who says, “everything I touch turns to snow in my clutch.”
But some think the Sheriff went too far with the “snark” on a post from March 14th.
The Instagram post in question was a photo of the Hwy. 395 avalanche with a caution sign and the words “AVALANCHE DANGER” superimposed in red alongside a Mono County Sheriff badge.
The original caption: “Things we shouldn’t have to say, but obviously we do because we are here: There have been reports of people skiing across the avalanche site in Lee Vining. In efforts to clear the roadway, the crews have to blast the area continuously and without warning. This creates slides in which a skier may become trapped, injured, or killed. Besides being dangerous and downright stupid, these foolish activities delay the desperately needed clearance of our only north/south route. Stay out of the way!”
During the Mono County Board of Supervisors meeting, county resident Ellen Young complained about the tone of the post. Young said the skiers in question were residents of Mono City. They were helping to carry out essential community functions – picking up mail and packages to people that can’t get them otherwise. Young warned Braun to “please be careful of the line between snark and service” when it comes to messaging. Young felt the comment section of the post – which Braun later disabled – put the community on blast based on unfounded accusations. She also claimed the alleged skiers never skied past the avalanche when blasting was occurring – blasting “which has only happened two days instead of continuously” as the post claims, Young said.
Braun apologized for the snark and stated that the post was made at the request of Caltrans workers who have to stop blasting whenever skiers are out on the slope. She hadn’t heard that the skiers were Mono City residents. “I do understand the hardships of Mono City,” Braun said.
Supervisor Kreitz added to Young’s remarks, saying that she sees a lot of snarkiness and pointing fingers at people. Not everyone who’s out on the road in a storm is an idiot, Kreitz said – some people are just trying to get home. “When we see this snarkiness and pointing fingers and lack of compassion toward others trying to survive, it’s not a good model.”
Supervisor Salcido said she found the messaging profoundly useful because it captures people’s attention, but she also agreed the skiing-the-avalanche message might have been over the line.
“The goal is to get the message out there,” said Braun. “If you add humor or sarcasm or an attempt at wit, they tend to get shared more – I over-achieved on the last one, and I admit that.”
The amendment to the post: “Comments for this post have been turned off. We know that many of you appreciate the directness of some of our posts, but the snark was too much this time. We apologize and now understand that some of the skiers were residents attempting to go to Lee Vining. We understand the frustration and needs of the community of Mono City and did not know at the time of the post who was skiing or why. We stand by the intent of the message to stay out of the slide area, as the road is closed to all travelers, whether in car, on skis, or any other modes of transportation.”
Lia Webb, Mono City resident, provided some context to The Sheet in an email: “The post in question was about some of us cross country skiing Mono Lake shore to get mail, food, necessary supplies … It was a sunny day, seemed appropriate, and most residents that own backcountry ski gear here are avalanche experts in one way or another either as professionals and/or life long backcountry advocates who keep safety #1.”
Webb also mentioned that much of the resiliency efforts in Mono City – collecting mail, getting food, gathering prescriptions – have been community-led, not county or Sheriff-led. A Mono City Residents Council, it seems, has been holding meetings, sharing firewood, dog food – whatever people need.
In a Facebook comment underneath a Mammoth Times repost of Braun’s original post, Mono City resident Margy Verba wrote, “For those who don’t know, we are cut off from our mail that is on the other side of this avalanche which happened 2/25 (so 2 1/2 weeks with no resolution in sight). We are also cut off from grocery shopping (although we can occasionally get to Hawthorne when that road is open), we are cut off from work (i.e. for many residents no paycheck for weeks now), etc. Please note that these days many people get important medical prescriptions in the mail!”
She continued, explaining the skiing in question: “There is not a slew of adventure seeking backcountry skiers skiing to Lee Vining. There are a few well-avalanche-condition-informed neighbors who are either trying to get to work (because their work is critical in this emergency situation) and/or one or two picking up medical prescriptions and other mail for the entire community…carefully planned and thought out trips.
She also mentioned that the County issued a similar warning about skiing underneath the avalanche that was absent of snark: “The tone was respectful,” wrote Verba, “and as most Mono City residents are good citizens, my guess is the respectful warning will be heeded.”
The County’s message: “There have been reported instances of people entering and skiing the closed area of U.S. 395 north of Lee Vining where there is an active avalanche mitigation effort underway. The public is urged to avoid this area as avalanches can occur without notice to the public, either naturally, or due to ongoing avalanche control efforts by Caltrans.”
It could be weeks before the highway reopens. A March 14th Facebook post from Caltrans District 9 explains that mitigation efforts on March 12th triggered “an avalanche that brought a significant amount of heavy and wet snow down onto U.S. 395 south of previous avalanches but within the current closure. With more storms in the forecast, Caltrans will perform additional avalanche mitigation operations this week before the emergency work can resume. Once work has restarted, it will be at minimum two weeks before the highway can reopen in a limited capacity.”
Two weeks once avalanche mitigation work has restarted. Which depends on the weather.