Relentless Northern California storm brings evacuations, road closings, avalanche

Rain and heavy snow pelted Northern California on Tuesday, leading to calls for evacuation at a rural Sacramento County hamlet and causing an avalanche that damaged several homes amid blizzard conditions near Lake Tahoe. Storms are expected to become showers by Wednesday, though the threat of flooding will remain.

Tuesday was the fourth day of Northern California storms amid two “atmospheric rivers” – and it brought the most turmoil as the cumulative effects of rain and snow overwhelmed roads and river banks. Sacramento was on pace Tuesday afternoon to top 5 inches of rain from Saturday through Tuesday, the highest four-day rainfall total in the city since 1999.

Large stretches of both Interstate 80 and Highway 50 were closed for much of the day as parts of the Sierra received 3 feet of snow and wind gusts exceeded 60 miles per hour. Portions of Garden Highway on the Sacramento River were submerged under several feet of water. El Dorado County officials declared a state of emergency.

“I don’t know whether we should stay here or not,” resident Tracie Cone said Tuesday afternoon as the lawn at her Garden Highway home turned into a pond. The home is elevated and should be fine, but watching the waters rise around it, she said, “has definitely gotten old very quickly.”

Forecasters predicted that storms would continue to drop heavy rain Tuesday night and Wednesday morning before letting up around sunrise Wednesday. At 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sacramento had received about 1.5 inches of rain in the prior 24 hours. About half an inch of rain is forecast for Wednesday.

“It looks more showery (Wednesday) and Thursday,” said Courtney Obergfell, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. But even with dissipating rains, she said, people near rivers and streams should remain on alert. “We want to stress even if the rain stops falling, floodwaters take awhile to recede,” she said.

The Cosumnes River in south Sacramento County was projected to overflow its banks early Wednesday morning, prompting officials to call for voluntary evacuations Tuesday of low-lying areas in rural Wilton. The river was expected to top its flood stage depth of 12 feet before midnight and crest at 14.5 feet about 2 a.m., reaching its highest levels since the floods of 1997, when river depths hit 18 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

“If you are in a flood-prone area, or close to the river, now is the time during daylight to get out, so we don’t have to evacuate in the night,” Wilton Fire Protection District spokesman Casey Robinson said Tuesday afternoon. “Anybody in the low-lying area along the river would be susceptible.”

A computer analysis suggests about 1,000 people live in the area that might be affected by Wednesday’s flooding, but many of their homes are built on berms or sit on relatively high ground, said Sacramento County emergency services official Mary Jo Flynn.

Safety officials planned to open an evacuation center at the Elk Grove regional park pavilion at 7 p.m. Tuesday and encouraged concerned residents to take advantage of it.

Bill and Lill Nichols, who run a horse farm near the river on the south side, said they did not plan to leave.“We have no concerns,” Lill Nichols said. “We have animals and can’t evacuate anyway.”

In 1997, the Cosumnes River levees broke in more than 15 places, and the river flooded 300 homes. The area’s reclamation district has strengthened the levee system in recent years. If recent history is a guide, the latest storm appeared likely to cause some flooding around the Cosumnes River in low-lying farm and ranch areas, but not be nearly as disastrous as the 1997 storm.

Flooding was a concern throughout the Sacramento Valley. On Tuesday, 13 gates on the Sacramento River Weir opened to relieve pressure on levees downstream. When the weir is opened, it sends water gushing into the Yolo Bypass, which serves as a relief valve for Sacramento. The weir gates, which are manually operated, had not been opened in at least a decade.

“A couple of them stuck a little bit to start with but they had no problems getting them open,” said DWR spokesman Chris Orrock.

As parts of the Valley threatened to flood Tuesday, an avalanche in South Lake Tahoe slightly damaged five homes. There were no reported injuries, officials said, but some houses suffered broken windows and other minor damage. Officials said the 11 a.m. avalanche at the Alpine Meadows ski resort was planned as a routine, controlled slide in a dangerous area.

Alpine Meadows and several other nearby ski resorts were closed all day Tuesday due to blizzard conditions on the mountain – and because the major roads leading to them were shut down.

Highway 50 was closed Tuesday afternoon at Twin Bridges on the west slope and at Myers in the Tahoe Basin to allow crews to conduct avalanche control work. Interstate 80 was closed over Donner Summit all day.

Heavy snowfall and high winds will continue in the Sierra through midday Wednesday before easing off, Obergfell said. From Tuesday night through Thursday, 5 additional feet of snow will fall at higher elevations. The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning through Wednesday, and a winter storm warning on Thursday.

“If you are in the mountains, we recommend you stay put,” Obergfell said.

Phillip Reese: 916-321-1137, @PhillipHReese. The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert and Brad Branan contributed to this report.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee