Winds gusting 70 miles per hour and stronger knocked down scores of 100-foot pine trees with saturated root systems in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties late Wednesday and early Thursday, leaving thousands without electricity and scrambling emergency crews, law enforcement, and road workers.
Strong winds pounded the Highway 108 and Highway 120 corridors, where trees fell in Twain Harte, Sugarpine, Mi-Wuk Village, Big Oak Flat and Groveland. Trees tore down power lines and struck at least one occupied home in the Big Oak Flat area, and outages left many businesses in Groveland unable to open.
Firefighters with Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit, law enforcement and local government agencies responded to 30 storm-related hazmat calls, including power lines down, trees down, trees into power lines, and propane or gas leaks, Emily Kilgore with Cal Fire TCU in San Andreas said. They also responded to 11 agency assists for flooding and traffic control, and two traffic crashes.
Volunteers and paid firefighters in the Mi-Wuk-Sugarpine area worked a busy night, responding to a cabin fire at 24257 Sugarpine Road in Mi-Wuk Village at 12:30 a.m. during the height of the storm. They found runoff coming off a slope, trees down blocking fire hydrants and compromising a water main, reducing water pressure while they fought the fire in wind-blown rains.
The man who lived there was not there and he lost his home, Engineer Joel Lafayette with Mi-Wuk-Sugarpine Station 77 said in a phone interview. Firefighters were dealing with multiple other calls nearby as they continued fighting the house fire with assistance from Twain Harte, Tuolumne County, Cal Fire, and Columbia College firefighters. They declared knockdown on the fire at 2 a.m. and called it out at 4:30 a.m.
No injuries or fatalities were reported. The cause of the fire was being investigated and Lafayette emphasized, “It was a horrific storm last night so it probably had something to do with it.” About two dozen firefighters worked together to help put the blaze out.
California Highway Patrol personnel based in Jamestown received 39 hazard calls between noon Wednesday and 6 a.m. Thursday. People reported weather issues including rock slides, trees down, and power lines down, CHP Sgt. Dave Chesson said.
County roads workers “stepped it up and got out there” to shoulder some of the heaviest workloads in the storm’s aftermath, Chesson said. CHP Sonora staff had calls stacked up when they came to work Thursday morning. Chesson responded to trees down in Confidence on Cedar Springs and at Highway 108 and Coffil. Chesson said the downed trees he saw appeared to give way at their roots. None of the downed trees he saw were snapped mid-trunk.
“The ground’s so saturated and the wind blows and they come down,” Chesson said. “It’s crazy how big some of the trees are. I saw several cedars down, too.”
The operations manager for Tuolumne Utilities District said Thursday his staff do not know at this point how many trees came down along the ditch system. TUD has 71 miles of ditch and it takes time to assess damage after a storm “like we experienced last night,” Lisa Westbrook with TUD public affairs said. Field workers intended to walk ditches Thursday and continue ditch patrols for the next couple days to make sure water is flowing properly and not being hindered by downed limbs or downed trees.
Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office personnel received 63 storm calls for service from 3:30 p.m. Wednesday through Thursday afternoon, Sgt. Rachelle Whiting said. There were no injury or fatality incidents in Calaveras County. Deputies in Tuolumne County responded to several alarm calls after midnight due to power going off and kicking back on, as well as wind causing movements, Sgt. Andrea Benson with the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office said.
A tree that came down in Twain Harte ruptured two water pipes on Fuller Road, and they appeared to be flowing at 40 to 50 gallons per minute before noon Thursday. Tom Trott, the Twain Harte Community Services District general manager, said he didn’t have information on downed trees or power outages. All of Twain Harte CSD’s water and sewer facilities were in service Thursday. He said he’d heard of one or two people who had damage to private service laterals, which are water service lines that run from a water meter to a house, due to tree-storm damage.
Winds overnight gusted to 73 miles per hour at Calaveras Big Trees and 66 mph at Penon Blanco near Moccasin and Big Oak Flat, Cory Mueller with the National Weather Service in Sacramento said Thursday.
Top wind gusts elsewhere in the Mother Lode included 50 mph at Murphys, 44 mph at Twain Harte, 37 mph at Pinecrest and 38 mph at Groveland, Mueller said.
Pacific Gas and Electric outages as of noon Thursday included 1,167 customers without power in Angels Camp, Arnold, Camp Connell, Dorrington, Mokelumne Hill, Mountain Ranch, Murphys, Rail Road Flat, Vallecito, Valley Springs and West Point, and 1,904 customers without power in Columbia, Groveland, Long Barn, Mi-Wuk Village, Pinecrest, Sierra Village, Sonora, Twain Harte and the town of Tuolumne, Brandi Ehlers with PG&E said Thursday afternoon.
In addition, another 9,763 customers in Calaveras County and 9,271 customers in Tuolumne County lost power and had it restored before noon Thursday, Ehlers said. PG&E had six troublemen and three crews working in Calaveras County and seven troublemen and four crews working in Tuolumne County.
Caltrans District 10 staff said a large downed pine tree blocked Highway 49 near the Tuttletown entrance to New Melones overnight and another downed tree caused delays near Carson Hill Thursday morning. They measured 20 inches of new snow on Highway 4 at the Lake Alpine closure gate overnight with more expected to come Thursday. On Highway 108 there was minimal new snow due to warmer temperatures.
Caltrans District 10 had seven maintenance crews and one tree crew out working in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, and more than 25 snow removal vehicles available.
Also during the storm overnight, a 60-foot houseboat sank at the Glory Hole Marina at New Melones, the marina manager said in a phone interview. The houseboat was unoccupied and the marina is closed for the winter. The boat mostly sank, the marina manager said.
Pete Kampa, general manager for Groveland Community Services District, said there were power outages and a ruptured water main on Wednesday, but there was no major storm damage to Groveland CSD infrastructure on Thursday.
Mueller with the National Weather Service said the Mother Lode should be drying out by Friday morning, with mainly cloudy conditions and highs in 50s. People can expect warmer weather Saturday with partly sunny conditions and highs in 60s. The next storm system is expected to move in Sunday.
Statewide, the Associated Press reported at least five people died during the three-day storm, including a family of three killed Tuesday in a crash in Placerville in El Dorado County, about 75 miles north of Sonora. High winds in Oakland knocked over a tree Wednesday that fell into a homeless encampment, killing a 42-year-old man.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.