The Western U.S. is bracing for the brunt of a major winter storm expected to hit Monday, bringing travel headaches, the threat of localized flooding and some relief in an abnormally warm fall.
Light rain and snow fell in Northern California on Sunday, giving residents a taste of what’s to come. The multiday storm could drop more than 8 feet (2.4 meters) of snow on the highest peaks and drench other parts of California as it pushes south and east before moving out midweek.
“This is a pretty widespread event,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Anna Wanless in Sacramento. “Most of California, if not all, will see some sort of rain and snow.”
The precipitation will bring at least temporary relief to the broader region that’s been gripped by drought caused by climate change. The latest U.S. drought monitor shows parts of Montana, Oregon, California, Nevada and Utah in exceptional drought, which is the worst category.
Most reservoirs that deliver water to states, cities, tribes, farmers and utilities rely on melted snow in the springtime.
The storm this week is typical for this time of the year but notable because it’s the first big snow that is expected to significantly affect travel with ice and snow on the roads, strong wind and limited visibility, Wanless said. Drivers on some mountainous passes on Sunday had to wrap their tires in chains.
Officials urged people to delay travel and stay indoors. Rain could cause minor flooding and rockslides, especially in areas that have been scarred by wildfires, according to the forecast. The San Bernardino County sheriff's department issued evacuation warnings for several areas, citing the potential for flooding. Los Angeles County fire officials urged residents to be aware of the potential for mud flows.
Forecasters also said strong winds accompanying the storm could lead to power outages. Karly Hernandez, a spokesperson for Pacific Gas & Electric, said the utility that covers much of California didn’t have any major outages on Sunday. Crews and equipment are staged across the state to respond quickly if the power goes out, Hernandez said.
Rain fell intermittently across California on Sunday. Andy Naja-Riese, chief executive of the Agricultural Institute of Marin, said farmers markets carried on as usual in San Rafael and San Francisco amid light wind.
The markets are especially busy this time of year with farmers making jellies, jams and sauces for the holidays, he said. And, he said, rain always is needed in a parched state.
“In many ways, it really is a blessing,” Naja-Riese said.
Lichen Crommett, manager of the San Lorenzo Garden Center in Santa Cruz, California, said customers weren’t deterred by a light sprinkling of rain Sunday morning.
“It’s not like raincoat worthy just yet, but any second it could change,” she said.
A second storm predicted to hit California midweek could deliver almost continuous snow, said Edan Weishahn of the weather service in Reno, which monitors an area straddling the Nevada state line. Donner Summit, one of the highest points on Interstate 80 and a major commerce commuter route, could have major travel disruptions or road closures, Weishahn said.
The weather follows a calm November that was unseasonably warm.
“With this storm coming in, it’s going to be a wakeup call to a lot of folks,” Weishahn said.
Vail Resorts’ three Tahoe-area ski resorts opened with limited offerings over the weekend after crews worked to produce artificial snow. Spokeswoman Sara Roston said the resorts are looking forward to more of the real thing.
“We will assess once the storm comes in, but we do expect to open additional terrain following,” she wrote in an email.
Meanwhile, the Sierra Avalanche Center warned heavy snow and strong winds on top of a weak snowpack could cause large and destructive avalanches. One man died Saturday at a ski resort in the Pacific Northwest when he was caught in an avalanche that temporarily buried five others.