Flood warnings, frantic sandbag prep as ‘atmospheric river’ barrels toward California

Before the drought, California was no stranger to the type of storm bearing down this weekend. So-called atmospheric rivers, like the one expected to drench much of the state Saturday through Monday, come five or six times each winter in a typical year. They can account for one-third or more of the state’s annual rainfall.

Nevertheless, a concurrence of factors has emergency officials and weather forecasters particularly alarmed about this weekend. The storm is expected to bring extremely heavy rainfall, as much as 15 inches in some foothills communities, in a very short time throughout Northern California. No storm in the foothills the last 15 years has produced that much rain in three days, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

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Such rainfall by itself would be dangerous. But this week, with so much rain already having fallen, the ground is saturated and the rain won’t quickly seep into the soil. Also of concern: the storm is expected to be relatively warm as it hits the Sierra Nevada, which is blanketed in several feet of fresh snow. Rain could fall as high as 8,000 feet, sending a gush of icy-cold snowmelt barreling down swollen streams to the Central Valley.

Adding yet another complication, a second storm system is expected to blow into California Tuesday or Wednesday. While not as severe, it could exacerbate whatever flooding has already occurred.

“While an atmospheric river is not uncommon, one of this strength is something we want folks to take heed of,” said Michelle Mead of the National Weather Service in Sacramento. Flood risk is considered the highest it’s been since New Year’s Eve 2005, when scores of homes were damaged throughout greater Sacramento by wind, water or mud.

On Friday, the National Weather Service warned of possible flooding in 25 northern counties, including the six in the Sacramento metropolitan area. The agency also upped its flash flood warnings to incorporate 13 counties in the Bay Area and Central Coast, as well as much of the San Joaquin Valley south to Kern County. With potentially 15 inches of rain expected through Monday, Yosemite National Park officials announced they were closing all roads leading into the park.

In the Sacramento area, emergency officials reported a steady rush of people filling sandbags at various locations.

“It’s insane,” said Matthew Robinson, a spokesman for Sacramento County’s Department of Water Resources, describing the hectic scene at one of the county’s free sandbag centers at the Orangevale Community Center. “But it’s a good thing. People are taking this serious. That’s a good sign.”

State officials would prefer getting precipitation as a series of moderate storms. But California doesn’t work that way. In most years, a handful of big storms typically provide the bulk of the year’s precipitation.

“They provide us the water, provide us the snow. When we have a lack of atmospheric rivers, we don’t get the rainfall that we need. That’s why we get drought,” said Gary Estes, coordinator of an annual conference called the California Extreme Precipitation Symposium.

Officials aren’t worried about the region’s largest rivers – the American and Sacramento – topping the huge levees that ring major population centers in the Sacramento area. The federal government’s River Forecast Center said those rivers will peak at about 14 feet below flood stage in downtown Sacramento – well below the disastrous storms of 1986 and 1997.

But small streams and rivers are a different story.

Roger Ince of the Sacramento County Office of Emergency Services, standing beside a swollen Cosumnes River at Michigan Bar in eastern Sacramento County, said the river is likely to rise above flood stage at around 11 p.m. Sunday. At that point, “this whole area starts flooding … here to Highway 99, which is about 20 miles,” he said. “We will see houses flooded, farm fields flooded, and our concern is getting people out of the area.

“We have a lot of cattle, horses, goats and pigs in the area. Get them into higher ground.”

Nearby, that’s exactly what Wilton resident Tom Heliker and his son, Zach, were doing.

They spent Friday preparing the family’s 5-acre property for the impending storm. The first order of business was moving their four cows to higher ground. In the afternoon, they stopped at the Wilton fire station to pick up free sandbags.

“It’s just something that’s going to happen.” said Zach Heliker, pointing to his backyard and the nearby Badger Creek. “Come Sunday night, I suspect this is all going to be underwater.”

Emergency officials warned of flooding on other area rivers, including the Truckee, Merced, Feather and Sacramento in the northern Valley.

State highway officials say Sierra freeways could shape up to be a mess.

The National Weather Service said the storm will hit the mountains as early as 4 a.m. Saturday. Snow levels could drop as low as Camino on Highway 50 and Colfax on Interstate 80. As much as 2 feet could dump near the summits by day’s end. While snow levels will climb as temperatures rise, state road crews may halt traffic on Highway 50 near Echo Summit intermittently for avalanche control in the coming week, as well as over Donner Summit on Interstate 80 to clear traffic incidents or if whiteout conditions occur.

For those heeding officials’ advice to stay home and off the roads, residents are urged to prep before the rain starts. Have sandbags, rain gear, fresh batteries and flashlights ready. Residents on wells should have extra water handy in case the power goes out. There’s a risk of outages from falling trees because their drought-weakened roots are now in loose, saturated soils.

“If we have a heavy wind, it’s going to blow some of the trees over,” said arborist Kurt Stegen.

John Gulserian, who oversees Nevada County’s emergency services program, said one of the most important things a person can do in a flood is be a good neighbor. He urged people to be mindful of where their elderly or infirm neighbors live and be prepared to help them should the waters rise.

“It’s a good, good approach,” Gulserian said. “We call that the whole community approach – neighbor helping neighbor.”

The Bee’s Phillip Reese contributed to this story.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

Sandbag locations

Sacramento County

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Sand and bags are provided at the self-serve sites, but residents must bring their own shovels. There is a 20-bag limit.

▪ County Branch Center, 3847 Branch Center Road, Sacramento

▪ Jose P. Rizal Community Center, 7320 Florin Mall Drive, Sacramento

▪ Orangevale Community Center, 6826 Hazel Ave., Orangevale

▪ Point Pleasant United Methodist Church, 3329 Point Pleasant Road, Elk Grove

▪ Sacramento Metropolitan Fire Station No. 106, 2200 Park Towne Circle, Sacramento

▪ Sacramento Metropolitan Fire Station No. 55, 776 Excelsior Road, Sacramento

▪ Westside Park, 6555 West Second St., Rio Linda

▪ Wilton Fire Station, 10661 Alta Mesa Road, Wilton

▪ Citrus Heights: The city will provide unfilled sandbags for city residents only from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at City Hall, 6360 Fountain Square Drive. The bags can be filled at City Hall or C-Bar-C Park, 8275 Oak Ave.

▪ Rancho Cordova: The city is providing free sandbags (up to 20 per person) from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday in the southeast corner of the Lowe’s parking lot, 3251 Zinfandel Drive. Pre-filled bags are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Bags and sand will be available thereafter on a self-serve basis. Residents must bring their own shovels.

▪ Galt: The sandbag station is near the entrance to the city’s Corporation Yard Annex, 550 Elm Ave. The sandbags are city residents only, with a limit of 20 sandbags per person. Bags and sand will be provided, but residents will need to fill and transport them.

Placer County

▪ Roseville: Sand and sandbags are available until 7 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday. They will also be available Sunday, if necessary:

▪ Maidu Regional Park, 1550 Maidu Drive

▪ The city’s Corporation Yard, 2005 Hilltop Circle

▪ Washington Boulevard Recycle Yard, between Junction and All American City Boulevard. This location is used only as a backup, if needed.

▪ Rocklin: Sandbags are available Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Rocklin Corporation Yard, 4081 Alvis Court. Sand is available at the corp yard after hours and at Johnson-Springview Park in the gravel parking lot near the community center and baseball field. Sandbags are for Rocklin residents only. Proof of residency is required. There is a limit of 25 sandbags per household.

▪ Lincoln: City is offering only sand. Bags will be put out when storm conditions warrant at Lincoln Library, 485 Twelve Bridges Road, Joiner Park, 1701 Nicolaus Road, McBean Park, 17 McBean Park Road.

▪ Auburn: School Park Preserve parking lot, 55 College Way. Limit 10 bags per resident.

Unincorporated areas:

▪ Cal Fire Station No. 33, 33752 Alta Forestry Road, Alta

▪ Placer County Fire Station No. 180, 11645 Atwood Road, North Auburn

▪ Foresthill Fire Protection District Station No. 90, 20540 Foresthill Road, Foresthill

▪ South Placer Fire Station No. 17, 6900 Eureka Road, Granite Bay

▪ North Tahoe Fire Station No. 53, 5425 W. Lake Blvd., Homewood

▪ North Tahoe Fire Station No. 52, 288 North Shore Blvd., Kings Beach

▪ Placer County Fire Station No. 70, 1112 Wise Road, Lincoln

▪ Placer County Fire Station No. 74, 8500 Lakeview Lane, Lincoln

▪ Town of Loomis Corp Yard, Rippey Road and Mandarin Court, Loomis

▪ Placer Hills Fire Station No. 84, 16999 Placer Hills Road, Meadow Vista

▪ Northstar Community Services District Corp Yard, 50 Trimont Lane, Northstar

▪ Placer County Fire Station No. 182, 9405 Wise Road, Ophir

▪ Placer County Fire Station No. 75, 5390 Nicolaus Road, Paige

▪ Placer County Fire Station No. 78, 4952 Riosa Road, Sheridan

▪ Old Squaw Valley Fire Station, 1810 Squaw Valley Road, Squaw Valley

▪ Department of Public Works Corp Yard, 2501 N. Lake Blvd., Tahoe City

▪ Truckee Fire Station No. 92, 11473 Donner Pass Road, Truckee

▪ Town of Truckee Corp Yard, 10969 Stevens Lane, Truckee

El Dorado County

Self-service locations:

▪ El Dorado County Fire Station No. 17, 6430 Pony Express Trail, Pollock Pines

▪ El Dorado County Fire Station No. 19, 4429 Pleasant Valley Road, Placerville

▪ El Dorado County Fire Station No. 21, 4040 Carson Road, Camino

▪ El Dorado County Fire Station No. 72, 7200 Florian Court, Cool

▪ Pioneer Fire Station No. 38, 7061 Mt. Aukum Road, Somerset

▪ El Dorado Fire Station No. 49, 501 Main St., Diamond Springs

▪ Garden Valley Fire Station No. 51, 4860 Marshall Road, Garden Valley

▪ Rescue Fire Station No. 83, 5221 Deer Valley road, Rescue

▪ El Dorado Hills Fire Station No. 85, 1050 Wilson Blvd., El Dorado Hills

▪ Cameron Park Fire Station No. 89, 3200 Country Club Drive, Cameron Park

Yolo County

▪ West Sacramento: The city is making sandbags available to residents and businesses over the next few days. Residents are allowed up to 10 bags per city address. Sand is free and available on a first-come, first-served basis at:

▪ Port of West Sacramento, near the guard shack off Industrial Boulevard, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

▪ 1801 W. Capitol Ave. in the vacant lot. Sand is available 24/7, but residents need to bring their own bags, available at the West Sacramento Corporation Yard, 1951 South River Road weekdays between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

▪ Woodland: Bags for sand are available to city residents from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Municipal Service Center, 655 N. Pioneer Ave. Sand for filling bags is available for purchase at hardware stores/landscaping suppliers in the city.

Sutter County

▪ Yuba City: Sandbags are available at the Yuba City Corporation Yard, 1185 Market St. Sand and bags are provided to the public for free for self-filling and loading 24 hours a day.

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