‘Atmospheric river’ moves out of Sacramento, state after putting dent in state’s drought conditions

The storm that pummeled Sacramento and much of California for three days moved east Thursday after causing at least six deaths in the Bay Area. The wild weather forced Butte County wildfire victims threatened by floods to flee their homes and plunged nearly 300,000 utility customers, mostly west of the capital region, into darkness.

The three-day “atmospheric river” that was most intense Thursday morning dumped record amounts of rain in Sacramento, at least 4 feet of “Sierra cement” snow around the Tahoe area and led to falling trees and downed power lines along the coast. It also put a dent in California’s drought conditions.

Government and university researchers who maintain the U.S. Drought Monitor map downgraded most of the state’s drought classification from abnormally dry to some level of drought, mostly of moderate intensity. The storm increased the statewide Sierra snowpack to 103 percent of normal Thursday, up from just 69 percent Jan. 1.

Only about 6 percent is in severe or extreme drought, compared to nearly a quarter of the state last September.

Downtown Sacramento received 1.39 inches of rain in the 24-hour period from Wednesday to Thursday morning, National Weather Service meteorologist Eric Kurth said Thursday. The 1.41 inches of rain recorded at Sacramento Executive Airport broke the daily rainfall record of 1.31 inches set in 1978, the NWS reported.

Sacramento Executive Airport only about 0.7 inches of rain through 4 p.m. Thursday, NWS reported. Rainfall totals were higher through the day in the area where the Camp Fire caused massive damage and loss of life in November. Paradise received 1.08 inches through 4 p.m. while Oroville got 1.48 inches, NWS reported. Vacaville, Vallejo and Marysville all received around 1 inch of rain through the day.

A flash flood warning was issued Wednesday morning for areas with severe burn damageincluding the greater Paradise area, Pulga, Concow, Feather River tributaries, Highway 70 and the Skyway in Butte County.

In areas recently scarred by wildfires, authorities feared small rivers and creeks would flood their banks and cause massive mudslides, further damaging communities struggling to recover from a historically bad fire season.

The blazes stripped hillsides of trees and other vegetation that stabilize soil and prevent mudslides, putting at risk thousands of people living in foothill and canyon areas devastated by wildfires.

The flood warning expired at 11:15 a.m. with little or no damage. Nonetheless, residents have been encouraged by authorities to heed road closures and stay alert.

In the Sacramento area, elevated rain levels caused river and road flooding in some areas. The Dry Creek East branch at Elkhorn flooded at roughly 5:30 a.m. Thursday, and the California Highway Patrol reported flooded roads in Elverta, Woodland, South Sacramento and Arbuckle.

Meanwhile, blizzard conditions blanketed the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada and the region’s ski resorts with as much as 4 feet of snow just in time for the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

So much snow accumulated on the tail of an executive jet parked at the Tahoe Truckee Airport that it propped the plane’s nose in the air Wednesday morning.

Schools closed as a result of the heavy rain and snow conditions, including all schools from the Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District, Lake Tahoe Community College, Pinewood Elementary School and Sierra Ridge Middle School.

The areas that bore the brunt of the storm were concentrated in the Bay Area. The CHP says a falling tree killed a 42-year-old homeless man in Oakland on Wednesday.

The CHP said the victim may have been trying to shelter under some trees near an Oakland freeway when he was crushed by a 30-foot-long branch. The man may have been “just trying to stay dry,” CHP officer Herman Baza said.

A few hours later, a pedestrian looking at a downed power line went into the street to avoid a falling tree and was struck and killed by a van in Mill Valley in Marin County.

CHP reported that four people were killed in two separate Northern California auto accidents caused by rain-slickened roads this week, including a family of three killed along Highway 50 in Camino on Tuesday.

A 200-year-old oak tree towering 100 feet over James Holmes’ suburban San Francisco home toppled over in the wind Wednesday night. “My family lived under it in our house, for 70 years,” he said.

“Our tree crews have been working around the clock to clear downed trees and large branches during the heavy rains and high winds,” San Francisco’s Department of Public Works said. Fallen trees blocked the city’s iconic cable car tracks for hours Thursday and similarly delayed other commuter trains in region.

Southern California authorities concerned with rising streams and excessive runoff ordered evacuations in parts of Malibu and other areas scarred by wildfires. Malibu schools canceled classes. Santa Anita racetrack canceled its slate of horse races Thursday.

In the Southern California hillside community of Oak Park, where residents used pumps and sandbags to hold off rushing storm water, longtime resident Diane Starzak said her neighborhood “kind of dodged the bullet” as the worst of three days of storms began to taper off.

The wind also caused major power outages for Pacific Gas & Electric customers, mostly in the Bay Area. PG&E said 280,000 customers lost power at some point since Wednesday. PG&E spokeswoman Mayra Tostado said 26,432 customers remained without power Thursday afternoon.

In the capital region, more than 400 power outages were recorded between SMUD and PG&E Wednesday night, but there were less than 2,000 customers without power at the height of the storm.

Since Tuesday, the central Sierra Nevada has seen 37 inches of snow, said Kurth of the weather service. Snow levels stayed relatively high Wednesday, starting at 6,000 feet, but pushed down to 5,300 feet as cold air moved in overnight.

Video from Northstar ski resort showed off the dazzling amount of 49 inches of snow falling in 48 hours ahead of the busy MLK holiday weekend. At Squaw Valley, 16 inches fell overnight and 23 inches in 24 hours.

Driving anywhere east of Roseville and Folsom remains a headache, however.

Chain controls are required on these mountain roads, according to the California Department of Transportation and California Highway Patrol:

R1 chain conditions (chains required; snow tread tires allowed)

  • Highway 89 from Tahoe City to Squaw

  • Highway 89 from Truckee to Sierraville

  • Highway 89 from Calpine to the Plumas County line

  • Highway 28 Lardin Way to the Nevada state line

R2 chain conditions (chains are required on all vehicles except four-wheel drive vehicles with snow tires on all four wheels)

  • I-80 from Truckee to Cisco Grove in both directions

  • Highway 89 from Pickett’s Junction to US-50

  • Highway 267 from Northstar to Kings Beach

  • Highway 20 from Vista Point to I-80

  • Highway 50 from Twin Bridges to Meyers

Caltrans stopped traffic for about half an hour Thursday afternoon on Interstate 80 at Donner Peak due to spinouts. Caltrans recommended avoiding travel through the Sierras on Thursday, if possible. If you must travel, Caltrans said, expect heavy delays.

I-80 is closed to tractor-trailer traffic, and Highway 88 is closed from Hams Station to Woodfords for avalanche control, according to CHP.

Snow showers will increase in intensity and heavier snow fell Thursday afternoon. Kurth estimated that mountainous areas would see roughly 1-2 feet of snowfall.

A winter storm warning issued by the NWS at about 3 p.m. Thursday said “travel will be very difficult to impossible, including during the evening commute.” The storm warning remains in effect until 4 a.m. Friday and includes I-80 over Donner Pass, Highway 50 over Echo Summit, and Highway 88 over Carson Pass.

Dry conditions will return to much of the state Friday, forecasters said.

The National Weather Service says the winter storm is forecast to drop its heavy rain, snow and wind in Colorado next and move across much of country in coming days.

“It will be slamming the East Coast by Sunday,” NWS forecaster Steve Anderson said. “From Maine to Florida.”

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