1st in series of storms moves into dry California; atmospheric river possible next week

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Rain and snow showers fell Friday as the first in a series of storms moved through California, marking a major change to real winter weather after weeks of scattershot precipitation that has done little to ease drought.

“Winter has returned!” the San Francisco Bay Area office of the National Weather Service tweeted.

Snow in lower elevations of the Sierra Nevada led to spinouts and crashes on Interstate 80, prompting authorities to temporarily shut a 55-mile (88.5-kilometer) stretch of the highway from Alta to the Nevada state line and turn traffic around.

High winds and poor visibility prompted the Kirkwood, Heavenly, and Northstar mountain resorts to close, postpone or operate their lift chairs at reduced speed Friday morning.

The California Highway Patrol, anticipating increased traffic to Lake Tahoe this weekend, warned that cars will be towed if they illegally park along the roadway for snow play.

“Plan ahead and find a snow park to safely play in,” the CHP tweeted.

A gale warning was posted off the coast and the storm unleashed an occasional downpour in the Bay Area. To the south, weather service technicians working on a radar installation atop Mount Umunhum in the Santa Cruz Mountains reported snow.

“Big fat snow flakes. Melting on the ground though,” the weather office said.

Periods of rain and snow and much cooler temperatures were expected through the weekend, followed in the middle of next week by a potential atmospheric river that could deliver significant rain and snow.

More than 95% of California has been experiencing drought conditions and the remainder is abnormally dry, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported in its weekly update Thursday.

In Southern California, where January has had summerlike temperatures, the Los Angeles-area weather office also tweeted a greeting to winter: “Are you ready to say goodbye (for now, at least) to the never ending heat? Well it’s nearly time because today will be our last 70+ degree day for at least the next week, likely longer.”

Drivers were advised to bring chains while traveling in Southern California’s mountains, where weekend snowfall was expected to begin lightly, become more significant Sunday and Monday, and then see an even stronger and colder storm on Wednesday and Thursday.

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