Friday morning may offer brief travel window in storm-whipped Northern California

'It's good that we finally got a winter'

Travelers and locals deal with a big snow storm in the Sierra. Chains, plows and shovels are coming out of hibernation.
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Travelers and locals deal with a big snow storm in the Sierra. Chains, plows and shovels are coming out of hibernation.

Don't be fooled by the breaks in the weather. Sacramento and the rest of Northern California can expect two more days of rain and snow as the season's biggest storm continues to bear down on the region.

After a day of whiteouts, blackouts, gusting winds and a major highway closure, Friday figures to be a little more of a mixed bag. The National Weather Service said Sacramento commuters might have a four-hour window of dry weather in the morning before the rain resumes. Travelers hoping to take advantage of fresh powder in the Sierra Nevada can expect light snow showers in the morning, which will give way to another heavy blast of snow later in the day.

Saturday will bring more rough weather as well before the skies clear for good.

"We have another wave that's coming in," said meteorologist Robert Baruffaldi.

As it was, Thursday brought the kind of weather Northern California hasn't seen all winter. Significant snowfall was recorded at elevations of 3,000 feet or lower, the first major snow in the foothills since 2011. Much of the Sacramento Valley and Bay Area got a soaking that will help with the drought-like conditions that have bedeviled the state this season.

"A lot of snow," Baruffaldi said. "We got the wind, a good amount of rain, but no flooding concerns so far."

Forecasters believe parts of the Sierra will get as much as 7 feet of snow by the time the storm plays itself out late Saturday.

In the meantime, the pause in the weather could create a window of opportunity for Sierra Nevada ski resorts, most of which had to close some of their chair lifts Thursday because of 40 mph-plus winds and whiteout conditions. Boreal shut down completely during the afternoon, Heavenly closed the famous gondola that brings visitors up from Highway 50, and Donner Ski Ranch said it would halt all operations until Saturday.

Rough road conditions didn't help the resorts. A 70-mile stretch of Interstate 80 was closed for three hours to car traffic; trucks had to wait even longer. Highway 50 had chain controls in effect throughout the day.

"We haven't had a ton of people come up," said spokeswoman Thea Hardy at Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort near Echo Summit.

But Friday "will be a very busy day," she said. "The folks who have prepared for this are going to enjoy it."

The closure on I-80 was the first in what has been an abysmally dry winter. By contrast, the interstate closed a half-dozen times during last winter's record precipitation, said Caltrans spokeswoman Liza Whitmore.

Chain installer Steve Robinette has some advice for drivers who want to take a trip up to the snow during the winter storm March 1.

She said motorists heading to the mountains Friday should be prepared for lengthy delays, particularly those who arrive during the evening hours as the rugged weather returns in earnest. Chain controls are practically guaranteed again on I-80 and Highway 50, and motorists should also expect periodic traffic "holds," when vehicles are stopped to allow snow plows to clear the way.

"People need to be prepared for extreme winter driving conditions, and to make sure they allow extra time for travel," she said. "Bring food, water, warm clothes and a full tank of gas, and remember to take it slow. The weather may be clear in the valley, but conditions on the (mountain) passes can be much more severe."

Down in the Sacramento Valley, it was the first full day of a long-overdue robust winter storm. Sacramento got 1.3 inches of rain during a 24-hour period. Chico got an inch. Thousands of SMUD and PG&E customers temporarily lost power at various parts of the day. Wind gusts at Sacramento International Airport peaked at 54 mph.

In what might have been the oddest moment of the day, the rains halted altogether at mid-afternoon in Sacramento, allowing the sun to peak through the clouds. Baruffaldi said rain was likely to resume in the evening before hitting the pause button sometime around 7 a.m. Friday.

Still, weather experts said the storm won't rescue California from its abnormally dry winter. Heading into this week, much of Northern California had received about half as much precipitation as it should by now. Jan Null of Golden Gate Weather Services, a private forecasting firm, said it's extremely unlikely the region will wind up the season with average rainfall.

"There's nobody here who gets to normal," Null said.

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