The consensus is clear: Don’t drive to the Sierra. At least until Sunday afternoon.
The latest wave of storms following the atmospheric river over Northern California is bringing so much snow to the mountains east of Sacramento that officials from the California Highway Patrol, Caltrans, the National Weather Service and elsewhere in the Sierra are offering a unified warning to motorists looking to enjoy the snow during the Presidents Day holiday weekend.
“Cars are stopped all over the place, people are unprepared and it’s unacceptable,” CHP Placerville Station spokesperson Andrew Brown said Saturday afternoon after Interstate 80 and Highway 50, the two arteries to the high country, had been shut down multiple times since Friday night due to whiteout conditions and vehicle spinouts.
As of Saturday afternoon, I-80 was allowing passenger vehicles up the mountain, but backups going east were seen as far as Colfax. Highway 50 wasn’t much better as crews held traffic throughout the day due to avalanche control. As of 7 p.m. Saturday, eastbound traffic at Alta and Drum was being turned because of spinouts.
Less-traveled highways were in various states of closure or chain control throughout the day. Caltrans tweeted photos of its crews working through the deluge at multiple spots, including Highways 267, 89 and 20.
The CHP Sacramento Communication Center asked on its Facebook page that anyone heading toward Placerville along Highway 50 should “just please stop coming up here” because of the massive amounts of traffic.
Hundreds of social media posts from state workers and civilians alike throughout the day showed the arduous journey it was, with long delays, slow speeds, vehicle spinouts and sometimes blinding conditions. Some even resorted to memes to get their exasperation across. One post from the CHP showed a scene from the 1994 comedy “Dumb and Dumber” with the passage, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance…”
CHP officers are working double shifts because of the “constant calls” they are receiving from unprepared drivers, Brown said.
“We understand that business and commerce have to continue. But when it comes to life and limb, we’ll protect that over anything. That includes anyone trying to get to their hotel on time for their reservation,” he said.
South Lake Tahoe’s Communications Manager Chris Fiore echoed that sentiment Saturday.
“Don’t travel through the mountains if you’re not prepared,” he said. “People were stuck out there because they were still trying to get here without chains.”
He said roads in the city are “a mess” and that he hopes conditions clear up by Sunday.
“Drivers need to expect long delays. They need to bring water, blankets and a full gas tank. We say this all the time but right now I’m dead serious. If people want to do this, they need to be prepared,” Fiore said.
Fiore didn’t want to damper all the excitement Northern Californians had wanting to play in the snow, especially after so much fell. But he stressed it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
“We don’t want to not say not to come but you have to get here safe, and go home safe,” he said.
Brown said Caltrans employees are working 12-hour shifts to provide avalanche control near the highway, causing delays that are only worsened by unprepared drivers traveling on the road.
“Drivers should not travel up to Tahoe until this storm is over,” said Caltrans spokesperson Steve Nelson. “The drive will consist of dangerous winter conditions and long delays.”
The CHP’s Brown said drivers who venture up the mountain anyway shouldn’t rely on their GPS to take them through side roads.
“In 2017, we had tour buses getting stuck on muddy roads because the driver just followed the GPS. Just use your common sense and don’t follow those routes,” Brown said.
He said even if drivers manage to make it through the side roads, they create more traffic instead of lessening the jam.
“People should try to hold out until it gets better. Or they can spend half a day in their car,” Caltrans’ Nelson said.
SNAPSHOT OF RAIN, SNOW TOTALS
According to the weather service, the Sacramento Valley received “impressive” amounts of rain. From Tuesday through Friday night, points in Sacramento got 2.75 inches or more during the four-day period. Oroville received 4.44 inches and Placerville got 3.38 inches.
In the mountains, the storms have been a major snow maker, the weather service said. Sierra-at-Tahoe, Boreal and Kirkwood all received 2 feet of snow in 24 hours ending 10 a.m. Saturday.
This last storm system was stronger than normal, delivering 90 to 110 inches of snow in the last seven days at elevations ranging from 6,000 to 9,000 feet near the ski resorts, said NWS meteorologist Hannah Chandler-Cooley.
According to the California Department of Water Resources, the Sierra snowpack was 141 percent of normal Saturday.
WHAT’S TO COME
It’s been a long week of weather battering the region, bring with it avalanche warnings, thunderstorms, flash floods and snow levels to elevations as low as 1,000 feet. But don’t fret, the worst of it is almost over.
After a break in precipitation Saturday, rain and snow were expected to continue through Sunday, making travel treacherous in the upper foothills and Sierra Nevada, said NWS meteorologist Brendon Rubin-Oster.
The heaviest snowfall over Interstate 80 and Highway 50 will wind down overnight and should be cleared out by daybreak, Rubin-Oster said. Roughly 1 to 2 feet of snow is expected from Saturday to Sunday across mountain passes.
While there is still snow in the forecast across the usual routes to the Sierra Sunday, the bulk of snowfall will head south of Highway 50 and doesn’t look to be as widespread has it has been over major roadways, Rubin-Oster said.
Snow levels will drop again considerably Sunday to about 1,000 feet or lower, which means areas such as Placerville, Auburn and Redding could experience some more snow showers, Rubin-Oster said.
Scattered rain showers and a few thunderstorms with the potential for hail will continue throughout the Sacramento Valley into the evening hours Saturday, Rubin-Oster said. Most of the valley will be clearing out Sunday except for a few isolated showers.
The forecast for Monday through Wednesday are dry, Rubin-Oster said, but temperatures were expected to be at or below freezing across the valley.