Tumbleweed Blitz Sparks Panic, Raises Ire in California Town

When tumbleweeds attack. Victorville, California. (Photo: The Daily Press/YouTube)

The residents of Victorville, a small city perched on the southwestern edge of the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County, California, are accustomed to being invaded by space aliens, vampires and murderous inbred mutants.

Located 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles along historic Route 66, this High Desert community of roughly 115,000 residents has long been used as a filming location, first for westerns, and later for sci-fi and horror films — "The Hills Have Eyes," "From Dusk till Dawn," "Contact" and "It Came from Outer Space" to name just a few — that take full advantage of the area’s eerily stark beauty, wide-open skies and dusty Old West ambience. Nothing, however, could prepare one Victorville neighborhood for the real-life terror (but mostly disbelief and annoyance) that recently ensued when an onslaught of jumbo-sized tumbleweeds trapped residents inside their homes.

Swept into the city by howling desert winds, the tumbleweeds accumulated into monstrous masses of dried brush, piled so high that they enveloped rooflines and partially buried cookie-cutter abodes in an isolated neighborhood on the south side of town. At some homes, the clinging shrubs blocked doors, windows, garages and other means of egress, causing residents to panic and, in some cases, call 911 for help.

"It looked like a war of tumbleweeds, like we were being invaded," Victorville resident Bryan Bagwell told NPR, noting that entire "fronts of houses disappeared" under mounds of prickly orbs. Removing a 7-foot-tall jumble of dead plant matter from Bagwell's home, which didn't even see the worst of it, required "several hours" of pitchfork-assisted labor. Cleaning up after a windstorm downs a tree in your yard is one thing. Cleaning up after a windstorm blows hundreds of flammable, thorn-covered spheres into your yard is another.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Victorville spokeswoman Sue Jones relays that roughly 100 local homeowners required assistance removing tumbleweeds following last week's pounding. The "all hands on deck" effort required participation from the city’s Code Enforcement Division, trash removal contractors, public works crews and even the county fire department.

"The crazy thing about tumbleweeds is that they are extremely thorny, they connect together like Legos," explains Jones. "You can't reach out and grab them and move them. You need special tools. They really hurt."

Jones tells the Victorville Daily Press that the desert-flanked neighborhood has a bit of a reputation as a tumbleweed magnet. "With the winds as strong as they are, as soon as they clear certain areas, more tumbleweeds are blowing right back in.”

Despite spooking residents and posing major public safety and fire hazards, the tumbleweed blitz did not result in any known injuries or medical emergencies.

Location of tumbleweed 'invasion' in Victorville, California
Flanked by the desert and undeveloped lots, this patch of Isolated tract housing in San Bernardino County, California, is prone to tumbleweed pile-ups. (Photo: Google Maps)

Flanked by the desert and undeveloped lots, this patch of Isolated tract housing in San Bernardino County, California, is prone to tumbleweed pile-ups. (Map screenshot: Google Maps)

'There is no stopping them'

Tumbleweed is a term usually applied to a specific invasive species known as prickly Russian thistle (Salsola tragus). These interlopers, which first arrived stateside in the late 1900s via an ill-fated shipment of flax seeds, are the classic, clichéd tumbleweeds you’d expect to find rolling through ghost towns, alongside lonely highways and anywhere where the theme from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" perfectly sets the scene. Technically, however, tumbleweed refers to the aboveground anatomic structure of a variety of plants — there are numerous tumbleweed species, including gargantuan hybrid varieties — that has broken off from its roots after becoming dry and mature, dispersing seeds as it rolls away in the wind.

This all being said, drought-exacerbated tumbleweeds are an ubiquitous presence in Victorville and other Mojave-abutting towns. But wind-driven tumbleweed "invasions" that bury homes and besiege entire neighborhoods are more rare.

As the LA Times details, the Victorville neighborhood that bared the brunt of the recent tumbleweed pile-up was particularly susceptible given its "particularly precarious geographic position with open desert to the south and east."

"We don't have any neighbors across the street," homeowner Nancy Martinez-Brown tells the Times. "We have the desert. It is like a little wind tunnel straight into this neighborhood." At Martinez-Brown’s home, the tumbleweeds reached as high as her second-story windows. "There is no stopping them. They pile up 5 feet tall. It does get scary."

While the Victorville tumbleweed assault was largely the result of a low-pressure system that whipped up winds reaching 60-miles-per-hour across the region, impacted homeowners point out that being in close vicinity to large and unkempt vacant lots made matters worse.

"A lot across the street from her [Martinez-Brown's] home was cleared of Joshua trees and large creosote bushes that typically dot the desert landscape to make way for more homes about 10 years ago," writes the Times. "But since the economy crashed, the land has sat barren waiting for housing that hasn't come, stripped of the vegetation that once served as a natural wind break when tumbleweeds came barreling through."

"The people that own the property need to do something about it but they won't drag it," homeowner Bagwell tells ABC7 News. "They won't respond to the city from what I understand."

Victorville spokeswoman Jones confirms to NPR that the city has indeed reached out to landowners to "to try to get them to abate the weeds and be more proactive."

Meanwhile, Bagwell says he's even thinking about moving from his Victorville home of the past seven years. "It's just a nightmare."