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Monster storm to hit Northern California

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The wind and rain expected to sweep through Northern California later this week could be the heaviest to hit the Sacramento region in six years, National Weather Service forecasters warned Monday.

“We are expecting some significant impacts to this storm; that is the big message we are trying to get out,” said meteorologist Bill Rasch.

Storm trackers say winds will come first, likely Wednesday night, with gusts in the Valley hitting 60 miles an hour.

“It will be a pretty loud night Wednesday,” Rasch said. The Thursday morning commute, at this point, appears likely to be the trickiest, with high winds and heavy rains hitting simultaneously.

Rasch said the storm will be similar, but shorter in duration, to a memorable January 2008 wind and rain event that knocked out power to many people, downed trees and caused localized flooding, notably near urban creeks.

The Valley could get up to 3 inches of rain between Wednesday and late Friday or Saturday, Rasch said. Foothill areas could get 5 inches. Weather forecasters warn of “near whiteout conditions” in the mountains, with heavy, blowing snow expected to total 2 feet at 6,000 feet.

People living in rural and remote areas should prepare for potential power outages that could last more than a day, Rasch said. With the ground already wet from last week’s rain, the combination of wind and rain could uproot trees.

“We surely will see downed trees; it is just a matter of how many,” he said.

The storm is expected to cause localized flooding on streets and along creeks, officials said.

Flooding could be a problem because of drains clogged with leaves, said Steve Cantelme, chief of Sacramento County Office of Emergency Services. That potential problem extends into the city of Sacramento, where leaf piles awaiting pickup by the “claw” dot the gutters.

Flooding is also expected in parts of Rio Linda and around Dry Creek, he said. Sandbags will be distributed at various locations.

In addition to Sacramento County, El Dorado and Placer counties are also focusing on sandbag supplies, emergency management officials said. Residents can pick up sandbags at some fire stations throughout the region, except in Yolo County, where officials advise residents to buy them.

In Placer County, Dry Creek, Miners Ravine and sections of Granite Bay are the most prone to flooding, said John McEldowney, program manager for Placer County’s Office of Emergency Services. “We’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” he said.

Emergency services officials are also advising the public to prepare. Residents should have fully charged cellphones, blankets, flashlights and a radio available when the storm hits, said Dana Carey of the Yolo County Office of Emergency Services.

They should also make sure storm drains on their streets are free of debris, she said.

City of trees

Rheas Serran, spokeswoman for the city of Sacramento, urged residents to take charge of the storms in their neighborhoods by removing loose leaves ahead of time, then monitoring and clearing stormwater grates during the storm. She said crews will be ready to deal with downed trees or flooding streets.

City crews won’t be accelerating their leaf pickup schedule before the storm but will continue working six days a week to scoop up the 30,000 tons of leaves dropped this time of year.

“We are the city of trees,” Serran said, adding, “It really doesn’t take too many leaves to clog a grate.”

Power losses from high winds are likely to be the biggest impact from the storm, Cantelme said. Various county departments will help with debris and downed power lines so the Sacramento Municipal Utility District can work on restoring power, he said.

Utility provider Pacific Gas and Electric is preparing, said Brandi Ehlers, a spokeswoman for the utility. Company forecasters are predicting a Category 3 storm over much of their territory, which covers a vast stretch of Northern California. While the utility typically sees a Category 3 storm once or twice a season, it’s more unusual to have such a wide area with a Category 3 predicted.

Stung by major freeway flooding during a smaller storm last week, California Department of Transportation officials say they sent maintenance crews out most of the day Monday to sweep debris from the Capital City Freeway between Cal Expo and Interstate 80. Crews have also been on the freeway checking pumps and clearing drains.

“We had others crews scouting for troubled areas and filling potholes,” spokeswoman Deanna Shoopman said. “The big thing is keeping debris out of drains, in the valley and up on the hill.”

California Highway Patrol spokesman Chad Hertzell says drivers should fill cars with gas before the storm hits and check windshield wipers. The biggest concern, he said, is that some motorists will stall their engines trying to drive through deep water. “We may not be able to get to every flooded (roadway section) to block it off,” he said. “You might be stalled permanently, and it might take a while for tow truck to arrive.”

“The problem last week, drivers (who stalled) couldn’t even put their car in neutral to push the car. They were just dead in the water.”

Mudslides a concern

In the area recently scorched by the King fire, U.S. Department of Forestry officials warn that the heavy rains could trigger mudslides.

Of the 97,717 acres burned in the September wildfire, 1,200 acres most at risk of erosion were earmarked for aerial mulching. But rain forced work on the mulching to stop when it was just 25 percent done, said Jennifer Chapman, spokeswoman for the Eldorado National Forest.

Forest officials have now focused their attention on improving roadway drainage to prevent roads from being washed away. “We plan for heavy rains … but this event really exceeds what the plan was considering,” Chapman said.

Weather service officials predict above-average precipitation over the next three months in Northern California, a welcome respite from the drought. It is far too early, however, to know whether the winter will bring enough rain and particularly snow to replenish parched reservoirs.

“The projection is also hinting at above normal temperatures, which suggests snow (elevations) would be higher than normal,” said Eric Kurth, weather service meteorologist. “Without a broad snowpack, supplying our reservoir needs into the summer isn’t helped as much.”

Daily highs are expected to be in the mid- to low 60s on Wednesday and Thursday, but below 60 degrees on Friday.

Last year, a persistent ridge of pressure pushed Pacific storms north to Canada and Alaska through much of the winter, Kurth said. That ridge has disappeared this year, Kurth said, creating the conditions for a more normal winter. “This year, we have nothing to block the storms from coming through. There are more storms on the way. This is more typical.”

This week’s storm – described as an intense and quick-moving “subtropical atmospheric river” – should be in and out of the area by Friday afternoon. It is expected to hit heavily on the coast, dropping up to 5 inches of rain. The northern Bay Area could see a half-foot of rain.

Call The Bee’s Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @NewsFletch.

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