A powerful storm packing heavy rain, snow and wind pounded parts of California and western Nevada on Wednesday, toppling trees, and causing power outages and mud flows in vast areas scarred by wildfires.
The onslaught was being fueled by a potent atmospheric river from the Pacific Ocean that punched into the state through the San Francisco Bay Area overnight, drifted down the coast past Santa Cruz and stalled over Big Sur before pivoting back northward.
Tens of thousands of utility customers lost power in the San Francisco and Sacramento areas, and a gust hit 125 mph at Alpine Meadows near Lake Tahoe.
Mudslides near Salinas south of the Bay Area caused “mild to moderate” damage to about two dozen rural ranch homes beneath hillsides scorched by the River Fire last August, said Dorothy Priolo with the Monterey County Regional Fire Protection District.
One woman was treated for broken bones after mud went “completely through the house” in the early morning hours, Priolo said. Fifty horses were rescued.
“We are expecting there could be more earth movement here in the next couple of days,” Priolo said.
Evacuation orders were issued in advance in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties around an area scorched by wildfires ignited by lightning last August. The state also positioned teams with specialized rescue skills in five counties.
Santa Cruz County initially appeared to dodge trouble, with no debris flows reported overnight. But the weather service said the atmospheric river’s afternoon pivot renewed risks of flash floods from burn scars in that region.
On the far north coast, three motorists stranded in snow late Tuesday were rescued by Humboldt County sheriff’s deputies who made their way through several miles of treacherous conditions while clearing dozens of downed trees and powerlines. The motorists were uninjured when they were located about 3 a.m. Wednesday.
Rare snow was reported in Sonoma and Napa counties north of San Francisco at elevations as low as 1,300 feet. Low-level snow also fell in the northern Sacramento Valley, closing Interstate 5 in Shasta and Siskiyou counties.
About 500 miles to the south, deteriorating conditions intermittently closed I-5 in Tejon Pass between Los Angeles and the southern San Joaquin Valley.
At Lake Tahoe, the National Weather Service issued a rare blizzard warning across a 170-mile (274-kilometer) stretch of the Sierra south to Mammoth Lakes, where more than 3 feet (0.91 meters) of snow already had fallen by Wednesday afternoon.
Several more feet were expected Thursday in the highest elevations with winds gusting more than 100 mph over ridges.
Most area ski resorts welcomed the relief from extended drought but Mount Rose on the edge of Reno, Nevada, closed “due to blizzard conditions and high winds.”
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered a two-hour delay for state workers to report to work in Carson City and northern Nevada, then sent them home two hours early as a second wave of the storm approached. Schools closed in at least three area counties.
Further south along the Sierra’s eastern front, a stretch of U.S. Highway 395 in California was closed until at least Thursday morning.
A warning was also issued for widespread high avalanche danger on the eastern slopes of the Sierra because of heavy snow combining with wind through Friday morning.
The storm was expected to drop down into Southern California on Thursday, bringing several inches of rain and concerns over burn areas, as well as several feet of snow to high elevations of the region’s mountains.
The atmospheric river is part of a major change in weather for California, which had significant drought conditions for months. The dryness contributed to wildfires that scorched more than 4.2 million acres in 2020, the most in recorded modern history.