Ferocious blizzard with “life threatening conditions” hits Sierra Nevada as Tahoe residents hunker down for up to 12 feet of snow

TRUCKEE — Communities around Lake Tahoe hunkered down Thursday as the biggest blizzard of the winter began to roar across California’s Sierra Nevada — a storm that forecasters said could bring up to 12 feet of snow by Sunday in some areas, with power outages, closed highways and winds over 100 mph on ridge tops.

“There’s a high likelihood that people will be stranded if they try to drive up here from the Bay Area,” said Craig Shoemaker, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento, on Thursday afternoon. “It’s too late to even try. It’s a very dangerous, life-threatening situation that will be developing.”

At local stores in Lake Tahoe, people bought tire chains, snow blowers, shovels, flashlights, candles, battery-powered lanterns and telescoping roof rakes for pulling down accumulated snow on homes.

“Today most of the locals are saying “there is something big going on,” and yesterday they were saying “are we really going to get 10 feet of snow?” said Brittney McClain, manager of Ace Hardware in South Lake Tahoe.

The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for the Northern and Central Sierra, continuing through 10 a.m. Saturday, the first such warning since Feb. 27 last year.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Avalanche Center in Truckee issued a backcountry avalanche watch in effect from 7 a.m. Friday to 5 p.m. Sunday for the Central Sierra, including the Lake Tahoe area, warning of “extremely dangerous” avalanche conditions.

Because of high winds and declining visibility, ski resorts were expected to close or severely limit operations this weekend.

Sierra-at-Tahoe closed Thursday, and announced it also would be shuttered on Friday ‘to preserve the safety of our guests and employees.” Heavenly closed Thursday afternoon, and other resorts such as Kirkwood and Palisades had only a few chair lifts running Thursday, with most closed due to high winds.

Tricia Popky, of Truckee, near Donner Lake, gets help loading firewood into her car from employee Chase See at Mountain Hardware & Sports in Truckee, Calif., on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

Last winter, a series of massive atmospheric river storms dumped dozens of feet of snow on the Sierra Nevada, ending a three-year drought. The Sierra snowpack, which provides about 30% of California’s water supply, was at its deepest level in 40 years. Reservoirs around the state filled, and ski resorts stayed open well into the spring.

As a result, Tahoe locals, even newly arrived residents, have a lot of recent practice on how to prepare for blizzard conditions, McClain said. In some neighborhoods, people plan to dig out fire hydrants to stop them from being buried too deeply in snow. In other areas, residents were tossing salt pellets on their roofs, or plugging in electric roof cables to prevent huge amounts of snow and ice from building up.

Last March, the roof collapsed at the Raley’s supermarket in South Lake Tahoe under the weight of snow and ice.

“When you have too much snow on your roof, your doors and windows don’t open correctly. Eventually you can start having beams break down, and the roofs can collapse,” McClain said. “We had a huge mass of ice, 15 feet long and about 2 feet around, that formed on the roof of our house last winter. It was in front of our windows. If it had fallen it could have broken through.”

On Thursday afternoon, Tricia Popky, a Carmel Valley nurse who has a cabin near Donner Lake, was in central Truckee buying winter gloves, firewood and kindling, and a new firewood rack for the cabin. “I’m just going to be hunkering down,” Popky said. “I’m going to cook some soup. I’m so excited because I got my wood-burning stove working.”

The latest storm, a powerful cold front that is carrying an unusual amount of moisture, originated over the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia.

The National Weather Service said it will only bring 1 or 2 inches of rain to most Bay Area communities. But the storm is forecast to dump 5 to 10 feet of snow in the Sierra above 5,000 feet, and 1 to 4 feet of snow at about 3,000 feet. In some high-elevation spots, 12 feet is possible by Sunday.

“If what we’re seeing from the models ends up happening, this is a truly remarkable storm system,” said Andrew Schwartz, lead scientist at the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab near Donner Summit. “It’s one that we very rarely have had before. It could set a highest snowfall on a single day for us.”

Since modern records began in 1970, the most snow the snow lab, which sits at about 6,900 feet, has ever received in one day was 53 inches, on Feb. 3, 1989.

An early inkling of the meteorological mayhem came Thursday morning when Interstate 80, the main highway over the Sierra, was closed eastbound for more than three hours after a big rig overturned near Donner Lake interchange, blocking both lanes of traffic, just as the snow was beginning to fall. The driver suffered minor injuries.

“It was pretty nasty for a while,” said John O’Connell, a Caltrans spokesman. “He was going too fast.”

Cars sat for miles all morning in stopped traffic, or attempted to navigate backroads to get around it.

San Jose truck driver Erik Lopez, making a run from Stockton to Reno, was putting chains on his 18-wheeler near Kingvale on I-80 Thursday amid increasingly heavy snowfall, after getting stuck in the lengthy jam. At the top of his mind was making sure he would return home to his family.

Truck driver Erik Lopez, of San Jose, checks his chains as snow begins falling on Interstate 80 eastbound near Kingvale, Calif., on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. Lopez was making a run from Stockton to Reno. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

“There’s no fear in my heart,” said Lopez, 34. “But there’s safety in my heart.”

Farther east, Truckee resident Brent Martin was pulling into his garage after a sketchy trip from Sacramento in his pickup truck, traveling via backroads because of the I-80 crash. He planned to keep off highways until the storm has passed, but was not expecting snow-related problems at home.

The blizzard would be “nothing compared to last year,” he predicted. “I’d shovel four feet off my deck twice a day last year.”

Martin urged non-residents to stay away this weekend.

“Tell everyone not to come up — all the Teslas and the Priuses, stay down in the Bay Area,” said Martin, 32. “That’s what causes a lot of the problems. Teslas are the new minivans — we hate ’em up here.”

The disruption Thursday wasn’t just limited to Tahoe and Donner Summit. Yosemite National Park officials said the park would be closed Friday and will not open until at least Sunday afternoon.

While a headache for motorists and first responders, the storm was a godsend to water managers. On Thursday, the statewide Sierra snowpack was 80% of its historical average, up from 28% on Jan. 1 after a wet February.

“When all is said and done it is likely the Sierra snowpack will be significantly above average just about everywhere in as little as a week,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA.

“This storm will certainly bolster the Sierra snow pack, but it is going to cause a lot of disruption.”


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Author: Paul Rogers, Ethan Baron