Despite predictions for the most significant storm of the winter over the next three days, Tuolumne County officials say the temperatures in the forecast as of Wednesday weren’t cold enough to prompt the opening of dedicated warming shelters.
The county’s extreme weather plan approved by the Board of Supervisors more than three years ago requires temperatures at night to be 15 degrees or colder and no more than 32 degrees during the daytime for at least three straight days before such shelters are opened.
Daytime highs in Sonora are expected to be in the mid-40s today through Sunday, according to a National Weather Service’s forecast. Nighttime lows are predicted to be in the 30s tonight through Saturday night.
A foot of snow is possible at elevations as low as 1,500 feet by late Thursday or early Friday. Twain Harte and other towns above 3,500 feet could get between 2.5 feet and 4.5 feet of snow by Saturday, though nighttime lows aren’t predicted to dip below the low 20s.
Mary Lynn Ashburn, of Sonora, said she believes the county should rethink its policies on warming shelters because she’s concerned about people who are homeless.
“The inclement weather policy sounds like it was written for Chicago,” she said. “It’s hard to enjoy my own warm bed when over 700 people are out in this weather.”
Ashburn was referring to a survey in September that found 711 people who said they were homeless in the county at the time. She attends St. James Episcopal Church, also known as the Red Church, where they give out sleeping bags for those in need.
After living in the county for the past three years, Ashburn said she was surprised to learn about the current requirements for opening the shelters in cold weather.
“Our bodies adjust to the temperatures here,” Ashburn said. “People from the midwest might not think it’s that cold, but 20 degrees feels very cold to me.”
The county has a list of pre-assessed places that meet the requirements for such shelters, but there’s no funding set aside in the event that the weather would require them.
Deputy County Administrator Tracie Riggs, who’s also the county’s Office of Emergency Services coordinator, said the county has always had to “make it work” when such shelters were needed in the past by using existing buildings, staff and volunteers.
If an event were so severe it would require renting larger facilities like the Mother Lode Fairgrounds, Riggs said county staff would need to first get approval from the Board of Supervisors.
The last time the county opened a warming shelter was briefly in January 2017 at the Word of Life Fellowship Church in Mi-Wuk Village, with the help of the American Red Cross.
Riggs said the policy pertaining to warming and cooling shelters in extreme weather events was written to meet best practices across the state and with input from Dr. Todd Stolp prior to his retirement as county health officer in 2015.
Dr. Dean Kelaita is Calaveras County’s health officer and has served as interim Tuolumne County health officer since August 2017, after Stolp’s successor left for another job.
Michelle Jachetta, emergency preparedness coordinator for the county Public Health Department, said she’s been monitoring the situation with Kelaita over the past 10 days.
Jachetta said there is some flexibility in the plan, such as if the storm causes mass power outages. She acknowledged concerns people have about those who are homeless, but added private groups could also provide shelter to those in need.
“The homeless situation is very unfortunate,” she said. “In some areas, the shelters that are already present in the community can sometimes expand their services, or other community-based organizations can expand their services during extreme situations.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.