Snowverwhelmed: Storm clean-up commences

Written by Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat February 21, 2013 07:58 am

PG&E workers repair downed power lines in Jamestown Wednesday morning. Maggie Beck / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
Law enforcement, public works and other Mother Lode agencies spent much of Wednesday cleaning up a mess left by an unexpectedly powerful snowstorm that caught many county residents unprepared.

The quick-moving storm dumped several inches of snow in the lower foothills, and even more at higher elevations. Snow was recorded as low Copperopolis and La Grange, although the National Weather Service forecast that snow would start at 2,400 feet — well above Sonora and Angels Camp. 

The storm forced drivers to ditch their cars along roadsides, closed schools and gridlocked roads in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties Tuesday and Wednesday.

Many officials say the problems had as much to do with local residents being caught off-guard as with the weather itself.

“People were pushing their luck not having chains or snow tires and just trying to beat the storm,” said Scott Anderson, of the Calaveras County Roads Department, whose department was still working to clear snow and stranded cars from throughways Wednesday afternoon.

The storm hit about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, and by late in the evening snow had accumulated in the far western reaches of Tuolumne and Calaveras counties. 

It dumped 9 inches up the hill in Twain Harte.

The area appears to have escaped major damage or long-term power outages, with many of the accidents and traffic issues being attributed to local drivers in the counties’ lower elevations not being ready for the amount of snow.

Pileups and standstills were reported around both counties, and Anderson said the gridlock slowed down the snow plows’ progress early on.

“A lot of the snowplow drivers we called in got hung up in that traffic,” he said. “We’re still waiting for some vehicles on Mountain Ranch Road to be towed out of the ditch. Tow truck drivers are at a premium right now.”

More than 28 pieces of snow plow equipment were on the roads in Calaveras County during and after the storm, with crews running in three shifts on Tuesday and the county bringing in extra emergency crews.

Tuolumne County saw similar issues.

California Highway Patrol spokesman Nick Norton in Jamestown said Wednesday that the county patrol received about 150 calls between Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon. Most involved stranded vehicles, with minor injuries reported, if any at all.

He said there were stretches of time when as many as 40 vehicles were stuck, with major problems reported at locations like Highway 49 at Rawhide Road, Phoenix Lake Road and Jacksonville Road.

“We had some minor bumps and bruises and some scrapes, but nothing really major, which is fortunate,” Norton said, later adding that people “basically weren’t prepared for the conditions and slid off the roadway.”

An overturned tanker truck spilled 1,000 gallons of fuel and closed Highway 120-108 at Yosemite Junction while cleanup efforts continued into the afternoon Wednesday.

The route remained closed as of 8 a.m. today with traffic detoured through Chinese Camp, and CHP officials estimated the road reopening this afternoon.

A school bus also drove off the road Wednesday afternoon in Coulterville, causing minor injuries to multiple teenage passengers and the driver.

The storm forced garbage collector Waste Management to delay its pickup schedule a day.

Numerous schools in both counties declared Wednesday a snow day.

According to PG&E, about 6,855 customers lost power in Tuolumne County sometime Tuesday or Wednesday. About 4,400 customers went dark in Calaveras County.

All Tuolumne County customers had power restored by noon Wednesday.

About 180 customers in Murphys and 60 customers in Sheep Ranch remained without power as of late Wednesday afternoon, said PG&E spokeswoman Nicole Liebelt, and  restoration was complete as of this morning, according to PG&E.

Water and sewer workers spent Wednesday cleaning up some affected sites.

Calaveras County Water District reported crews plowed and cleared some tanks and locations in the higher elevations and also helped plow some local roads.

And Tuolumne Utilities District crews cleared out some parts of the district’s water-delivery ditch stopped up by snow and ice.

“The treatment plants weathered the storm,” said TUD General Manager Pete Kampa, noting that water treatment sites all remained online. “Everything’s in good shape.”

Along with Highway 108, multiple Tuolumne County roads closed temporarily for cleanup.

And as of this morning, Old Priest Grade and Wards Ferry Road around the river canyon remained closed.

Duke York, who directs the county road department, said crews remained on the clock through Wednesday to clear the roads and clean up downed tree limbs.

He also said some of the issues stemmed from drivers who didn’t expect the large amount of low-elevation snow. Crews were still dealing with abandoned cars as late as Wednesday afternoon, York said.

“Our guys are getting the job done,” he said. “This is what happens in the winter in Tuolumne County.

Cleanup cost estimates were not available Wednesday.