Season’s first big storm tops Sierra with snow, threatens fire areas

Video: Storm brings snow back to parched Sierra

The storm that rolled into California drenched the Sacramento area and the valley while dropping snow in the Sierra Nevada, mountains that received very little of the white stuff last year. Sacramento Bee reporter Ed Fletcher went to the hills to
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The storm that rolled into California drenched the Sacramento area and the valley while dropping snow in the Sierra Nevada, mountains that received very little of the white stuff last year. Sacramento Bee reporter Ed Fletcher went to the hills to

Snow fell on the Sierra Nevada summits Monday as the first significant storm of the season pushed into Northern California overnight from the Gulf of Alaska.

The storm brought a measure of relief to the Central Valley and foothills, parched by years of drought. It provided a thin base of wet snow for some ski areas near Lake Tahoe.

It also worried residents of fire-ravaged areas, for whom mudslides are a wet-weather threat. And it caused numerous spin-out accidents as drivers unused to slick roads lost control of their vehicles.

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“People are driving on snow for the first time of the season. It’s just the loss of traction,” said Steve Nelson, a Caltrans spokesman. Much of the snow on high-altitude roads remained semi-melted and slippery due to chilly temperatures, he said.

Spin-out accidents occurred near Donner Pass on Interstate 80 and at Kirkwood on Highway 88 in Alpine County, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Near Donner Summit, snow continued to fall into the early afternoon and formed a slushy mix in the parking lot of the Soda Springs General Store. Owner Cheryl Paduano said she hoped the snow was a sign of more to come.

The mountain economy, which relies on skiing and other snow sports, has suffered in the drought. The snowpack from last winter was 5 percent of normal – the lowest it had been in more than 500 years, researchers said. Residents have been getting desperate.

“We were going to have a pray-for-snow bonfire, but maybe we don’t need to,” Paduano said.

On Sacramento-area freeways, the morning commute was a mess Monday as motorists spun out or rear-ended other vehicles.

A truck slammed into the center divider on northbound Interstate 5 near Seamas Avenue in Sacramento around 6 a.m. while rain was falling. Other vehicles were also damaged, at least one by concrete from a broken divider.

There were also collisions about 9:30 a.m. on eastbound Highway 50 near the 59th Street offramp. And part of a tree came down on a car about the same time at the American River Drive onramp to Watt Avenue.

“The traffic was very congested due to numerous crashes on the roadways in the south Sacramento area, especially Interstate 5 and Highway 99,” said CHP spokesman Officer Michael Bradley. “The crashes ... were due to the weather.”

There were power outages, and minor flooding on Broadway and other streets from clogged storm drains.

Despite the inconveniences, many Sacramentans cheered the storm.

“Totally happy,” said Erica Oswald, 33, who was shopping with her three young children at the Natomas Marketplace shopping center. “It’s been great. The kids put on their boots to stomp in some puddles.”

The National Weather Service said that, as of midday Monday, about three-quarters of an inch of rain had fallen in Sacramento and 1-2 inches in the foothills. The last time that much rain fell was April 24-25, said Idamis Del Valle Martinez, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sacramento.

Up to 8 inches of snow accumulated on mountain passes, while high summits received more than a foot, Del Valle said. Snow levels were predicted to drop down to 5,000 feet today, she said.

“The storm came from the Gulf of Alaska,” she said. “That’s why it’s been dropping the snow levels – because it’s cold.”

The storm is expected to be short-lived. Sunny skies are predicted for the remainder of the week starting Tuesday morning, according to the weather service.

That could be good news for regions devastated by summer wildfires.

In the area of September’s Butte fire in Calaveras County, officials were closely monitoring the rainfall on denuded slopes where debris slides could occur.

A flash-flood warning was issued in parts of Lake County blackened by the Valley, Rocky and Jerusalem fires this summer. The National Weather Service also warned of potential debris flows of mud, rock and vegetation in the burned areas.

Near the end of the workday, officials in Lake and Calaveras counties said they hadn’t heard of any significant debris slides from Monday’s rains.

“We’ve been very fortunate today,” said Sharon Torrence, spokeswoman with the Calaveras County Butte Fire Recovery Joint Information Center. “The roads have been open.”

In the Sierra, Monday was a busy day for Caltrans crews. Chain control was in effect on highways 50 and 80 for much of the day, and Caltrans workers were out in force plowing snow.

Caltrans’ dispatch center in Kingvale, the location of a large vehicle yard and dorms for workers, opened Monday, marking the start of the snow season.

“We’re fully staffed out there,” said Caltrans spokesman Nelson. “It’s a 24-hour operation now.”

Hudson Sangree: 916-321-1191, @hudson_sangree