Hemet Unified Bus Drivers Play Vital Role in Critical Mountain Rescue

HUSD bus driver’s were recently part of a rescue operation to get 600 Irvine middle school students and staff home after they became stranded in the mountains due to a snowstorm that hit the area while they attended outdoor education camps. The students were due home Friday, February 24 but a snowstorm hit the area on Thursday February 23, keeping them stranded for four additional days. 

Hemet bus drivers, Brian Kephart, Rebecca Pierce, Manuel Ramirez, Martin Rivera and Fawn Steffen, were escorted by CHP up the mountains on Monday, February 27 to evacuate 115 students at the Thousand Pines Camp in Crestline and the remaining 510 students from the Pali Institute in Running Springs. 

The conditions being reported were extremely dangerous. Driver Brian Kephart stated, “ It was extremely wet and cold up there. We had to put on real chains; It was the most snow I have ever seen in Southern California. A snowplow drove in front of the bus to clear the way so we could get to the camps and get the kids back down the mountain before the next series of storms hit.  It was definitely a team effort.”

Fawn Steffen, who has experience driving in mountain conditions as she transports students for Hemet partner schools and on field trips shared, “The weather and road conditions were similar but different than I have driven in before, but overall it was a humbling experience. The best part was when we finally dropped the kids off to their families. The students and parents were so thankful, embracing us with hugs and gratitude. It was heart-wrenching to imagine what these families were going through because I am a parent and grandparent.” Driver Martin Rivera was thankful for the opportunity to be part of this rescue effort. “Thanks to everyone’s efforts, hundreds of school children and staff were reunited safely with their families.”

Irvine parents were panicked when they learned their students would not be coming home due to the hazardous weather conditions. They were left to imagine how their children were handling this unexpected experience. Driver Rebecca Pierce stated, “Honestly, I don’t think any of us realized how dire the situation was until we started loading the kids and saw how thankful and relieved they were. I was really proud and honored to be a part of this amazing team! I would just like to say that our team at Hemet Unified is absolutely amazing. This team gives us the confidence to do the big jobs when they need to be done!”  

The Irvine Unified School District Superintendent, Terry Walker, expressed his gratitude saying, “On behalf of the Board of Education and the entire Irvine Unified School District community, I would like to personally express my deepest appreciation to the Hemet Unified School District for providing safe and efficient transportation services for our students and staff. Without the immediate action of HUSD Transportation staff, IUSD’s ability to transport these students and staff likely would have been delayed. We appreciate the collaborative efforts of all staff and local authorities involved with providing transportation resources to our district in a time of need.”

Snow conditions are nothing new to our drivers as many often transport students in our mountain schools in the cities of Aguanga, Anza and Idyllwild. Those areas have also seen higher than normal snow levels this year. The transportation department had to come together to develop a plan as the weather conditions continued to worsen over the past few weeks. A new key strategy has been to deploy drivers to scout the road conditions each morning beginning at 3:00 a.m. As they drive the roads in the very early mornings, these drivers in addition to the regular route drivers, have been reporting back to the operations team and administrators so decisions could be made each day regarding the safety of students and their families.

HUSD truly has amazing and dedicated staff who go above and beyond for students every single day. But this group of bus drivers deserve to be recognized for truly embodying the District Mission to Embrace, Educate, Empower; Every Student, Every Day. They truly mean every student. Even those outside our district. Driver Manuel Ramirez said, “I was asked to evacuate 600 trapped kids from a snowstorm. And it was a no brainer. I would do it all again in a heart-beat.”