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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

California blizzard delivers 190 mph wind, feet of snow

Valentino Perez uses a snowblower in front of a restaurant north of Lake Tahoe during a powerful multiple day winter storm in the Sierra Nevada mountains on Saturday in Truckee, Calif.  (Mario Tama/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Rong-Gong Lin II Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO – The most powerful California blizzard of the winter sent gusts of up to 190 mph to the Sierra Nevada, and heavy snow and strong winds forced officials to shut some roads in the Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Mountain areas.

Roads that were forced to shut overnight into Saturday morning included a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 80 between Drum Forebay and the Nevada state line and a 50-mile stretch of Highway 395 north of Mammoth Lakes to Bridgeport.

Highway 395 between Mammoth Lakes and Southern California remained open as of Saturday morning, but weather conditions were dicey because of strong winds, as well as heavy rain in some areas. On Friday afternoon, a truck tipped over because of high winds in the Olancha area of Inyo County, the California Highway Patrol said.

On Interstate 80 over the Sierra on Friday, multiple vehicles spun out and a big rig jackknifed. At one point overnight, “we had a mass amount of vehicles over Donner Summit and it took several hours for emergency vehicles and tow trucks to reach motorists,” the California Highway Patrol office in Truckee said.

“At one point, emergency personnel and tow trucks had a difficult time getting to motorists due to blizzard conditions,” the CHP said. Officials will still need to remove vehicles left abandoned on Interstate 80 after motorists were rescued.

“We suggest you stay home,” the CHP added. “Stay warm and don’t put yourself and your family in a dangerous position.”

A gust of 190 mph was detected Friday night at Palisades Tahoe at an elevation of 8,700 feet, according to the National Weather Service. Forecasters warned of extreme avalanche danger across the greater Tahoe region in the Sierra backcountry through Sunday afternoon.

Around Mammoth Mountain in Mono County, peak winds clocked in at 114 mph Friday afternoon.

The record in California for the fastest wind gust verified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was 199 mph on Feb. 20, 2017, at Ward Mountain, also known as Ward Peak, at Palisades Tahoe.

Forecasters urged people to stay where they are unless there’s an emergency, and warned that it could take time for plows to dig out communities. Meteorologists say the storm, which may dump up to 12 feet of snowfall in the highest elevations of California’s mightiest mountain range by Sunday, could result in one of the top 10 snowiest days of the central Sierra since 1970.

The crest of the Sierra overall is expected to get 6 to 10 feet of snow; Mammoth Lakes, 2 to 4 feet; and the Tahoe Basin, 3 to 6 feet. Snow could be falling at a rate of 1 to 6 inches per hour, the weather service said.

The UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab by Saturday morning had received 3 feet of snow, and expected several more feet by Monday morning.

Mammoth’s ski resort forecast a high of 15 degrees Saturday and, besides the blizzard, forecast “thundersnow,” in which lightning can occur within a snowstorm.

“Light, fluffy snow will be easily blown around, creating whiteout conditions with near-zero visibility at times,” the weather service office in Reno said. For those who do venture out, “pack an emergency kit and prepare to be stranded in your vehicle for an extended period of time.”

Sierra ski resorts reported Friday being forced to close at least some sections of their mountains, or had to shut operations entirely, because of the intensity of the blizzard. It will take time to dig out chair lifts, they said.

Life-threatening blizzard conditions were expected through Saturday morning, according to the National Weather Service office in Reno, which issued a rare blizzard warning for this storm that will last through Sunday morning. The blizzard warning extends from Lassen Volcanic National Park in Shasta County to Kings Canyon National Park in Fresno County.

Blizzard warnings for the Sierra Nevada are issued only either once annually or once every other year.

Snow showers in the Sierra are expected to continue through Sunday and Monday, and there are more chances of snow on Wednesday.

“That break that we were expecting on Tuesday may not be so much of a break for the Sierra,” the weather service office in Reno said. “The Sierra could see up to 6 inches of snow in the valleys, and up to another foot near the crest, between Tuesday and Wednesday.” After that, “drier weather appears to return by Thursday and into the weekend,” the weather service said.

Hundreds of customers in the Tahoe area were without power for at least some period of time late Friday and early Saturday, according to the Truckee Donner Public Utility District and Liberty Utilities.

Other areas of California are also forecast to be affected by the strong winter storm. A stretch of Interstate 5 in Siskiyou County, near the Oregon border, could get more than 1 foot of snow.

And Highway 101 in Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties could see snowfall. Highway 101 at Ridgewood Summit in Mendocino County could get up to 1 foot of snow; at Prairie Creek Summit in Humboldt County, up to 1.5 feet; and south of Crescent City in Del Norte County, about half a foot of snow.

Yosemite National Park was ordered shut down starting Friday and its visitors told to leave by noon. The park will remain closed at least through noon Sunday, and its closure could be extended.

Some 6 to 12 inches of snow could fall in Yosemite Valley – the most popular part of Yosemite National Park, the National Weather Service office in Hanford said. A winter storm warning will take effect there between Saturday morning through Sunday morning.

A more intense blizzard warning was already in effect for the rest of Yosemite National Park outside of Yosemite Valley, which will last through Sunday morning.

Some 2 to 3 feet of snow could fall at the Big Oak Flat entrance to Yosemite National Park along Highway 120, a route often taken by travelers from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Along Highway 41, a route to the park often taken by those from Fresno and Southern California, 3 to 5 feet of snow could fall at the entrance to the park, around Mariposa Grove. At the historic Victorian-era Wawona Hotel, 3 to 6 feet of snow could fall.

In the Sacramento Valley, gusty winds could result in power outages and falling trees through early Saturday.

The winter storm was expected to be more mild for Southern California. The wettest period of the weekend was expected on Saturday, but there’s still a chance of rain that exists on Sunday.

Still, there could be “isolated and brief bursts of heavy rain likely through Saturday night,” mainly in the foothills and coastal slopes, the weather service office in Oxnard said. There is the potential for mudslides and rockslides on canyon roads and below steep hillsides, and ongoing land movement in recent landslide areas.

For the weekend storm, downtown L.A. could get 0.6 inches of rain; Long Beach, 0.44 inches; Pomona, 0.74 inches; Pasadena, 1.33 inches; Santa Clarita, 0.77 inches; Oxnard, 0.65 inches; and Santa Barbara, 0.92 inches.

San Diego could get up to 0.2 inches; Irvine, San Clemente and Riverside could get up to 0.3 inches; Anaheim, up to 0.4 inches; Ontario and Temecula, up to 0.7 inches; and San Bernardino, up to 1 inch.

The San Francisco Bay Area was facing thunderstorms Friday night, which were expected to continue Saturday, with increasing winds. Gusts of up to 50 mph are possible through Saturday morning. Cities in the Bay Area were generally forecast to get between 1 and 1.5 inches of rain through Sunday.

Four people were hurt in San Francisco on Friday evening after a tree fell on their car at Golden Gate Avenue and Laguna Street, firefighters said.