A powerful winter storm moved east out of the Mother Lode late Tuesday, leaving hundreds of snow-loaded hazard trees down, thousands of people without electricity, and dangerous road conditions as a freezing cold front moved in to prompt concerns about how prepared Calaveras and Tuolumne counties are to deal with multiple consecutive below-freezing nights before the next cold winter storms arrive Friday through Sunday.
Due to snowfall and limited access in many areas between Sonora and Dunlap in Fresno County, it is likely some Pacific Gas and Electric customers will have to cope with extended outages lasting until Friday or Saturday, a PG&E spokesperson said just before 5 p.m. Tuesday.
“We have committed extra resources to restoring power in these areas as soon as conditions allow,” said Denny Boyles with PG&E in Fresno. “Currently we have 39,970 customers out due to storm damage.”
Boyles was not able to provide specific numbers of customers without power in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.
Tuolumne County offices were closed Tuesday, but county roads workers, snowplow drivers, firefighters, law enforcement and utility crews scrambled all day to cope with the lowest foothill snow levels to hit Sonora in several years.
Driving conditions were so bad Tuesday at least two snow removal vehicles got stuck, on Highway 49 in the Tuttletown area and on Middlecamp Road toward Sugarpine.
Volunteers at local churches were working to open a place for homeless individuals to seek shelter from incoming, plunging cold temperatures.
Overnight lows for the Sonora were forecast to drop into the 20s Tuesday night, with a low of 25 degrees Fahrenheit early Wednesday, 24 early Thursday, 31 early Friday, and 35 degrees by early Saturday.
As of 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, a Pacific Gas and Electric outage page showed multiple outages in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, with customers affected in communities including Glencoe, Rail Road Flat, Mokelumne Hill, Mountain Ranch, Murphys, Columbia, Jamestown, Sonora, East Sonora, Phoenix Lake-Cedar Ridge, Standard, Tuolumne, Mono Vista, Groveland, Pine Mountain Lake, and east past Groveland on the Highway 120 corridor to Buck Meadows, which is in Mariposa County, and further east past Rainbow Pool.
Earlier in the day, a spokesman for the utility said as many as 9,600 customers were without power in the Sonora area and east of Sonora.
Denny Boyles, a PG&E spokesman in Fresno, emphasized the 9,600 total was an estimate, and he said there were “probably more than that.”
When power is restored to all customers, Boyles said, will depend on how soon PG&E crews and contractors can safely gain access to work on repairing damaged equipment and dealing with related issues.
Yosemite Valley isolated
Heavy snow and tree failures in Yosemite National Park prompted authorities to close highways 120 and 41, and to approve weather-and-safety leave for federal employees Tuesday. There were reports in Yosemite Valley that snow-loaded oak trees and cedar trees came down, damaging some buildings.
Federal communications staff in Yosemite reported all roads in the park were closed due to heavy snow and fallen trees. They warned people in the park to stay inside to avoid falling trees.
Snow depths in downtown Sonora approached inches before noon Tuesday. The last time that much snow dumped as low as 1,500 feet elevations and lower was five or six years ago. Some people still talk about “Snowmageddon” — when downtown Sonora got about 5 inches of snow on Feb. 19, 2013.
Visit the Facebook page for The Union Democrat to view a video of what Sonora looked like that day.
Early morning driving conditions approaching Sonora were so bad that Tuesday print editions of The Union Democrat were not delivered. A truck full of papers made it from this newspaper’s printer in Sacramento to Mono Way and had to turn around.
A paywall for The Union Democrat’s website was dropped, providing readers with free access all day Tuesday.
At one point Tuesday afternoon, a bulk of the storm system was aimed directly at the Mother Lode while roads crews, firefighters and law enforcement tried to deal with fallen trees, downed power lines and slush-covered roads in multiple locations, from Murphys to Columbia, Big Hill and Cedar Ridge to Groveland and Pine Mountain Lake.
Trees were reported down in locations including the area of Fallview and Crystal Falls Drive, in the 21500 block of Crystal Falls Drive, on Lyons Street between Hope Drive and Lyons Bald Mountain Road, on Racetrack Road above Sonora High School, on Mountain Brow Road near Highway 49, and on Tuolumne Road just past The Junction.
Defective traffic signals were reported before noon Tuesday near the lower junction of Mono Way and Highway 108, according to California Highway Patrol personnel based in Sonora.
Staff with the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office advised people just before noon Tuesday to avoid travel because power lines were down and numerous vehicles were stuck.
Also around midday Tuesday, Twain Harte was getting whiteout conditions with more snow falling, John Buckley with the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center said.
Buckley estimated there were 10 to 12 inches of new snow in Twain Harte.
Cancellations and delayed openings
Government offices in Tuolumne County and more than 40 schools in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties were closed Tuesday due to the weather. As of 3 p.m. Tuesday it was unclear how many of those schools would open on time or at all on Wednesday.
Tuolumne County government facilities were expected to open late on Wednesday, at 10 a.m. The delayed opening is necessary, county administration staff said, because nighttime temperatures are expected to drop into the low 20s before Wednesday morning.
With snow and slush and melting runoff on roads throughout Tuolumne County, icy roadways were expected to have significant impacts on travel overnight into Wednesday and Wednesday morning.
Tuesday evening’s Angels Camp City Council meeting was canceled, Susan Wenger deputy city clerk, said in an announcement before noon. A meeting of the Bret Harte Union High School District governing board that was canceled Monday has been rescheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday this week.
While mist and fog bore down on Sonora and other snow-blanketed foothill communities on Tuesday, numerous residents took to the internet and social media to post information from their neighborhoods and commutes.
There was at least one downed tree sagging onto utility lines on Tuolumne Road just past The Junction, Tammi Lynn Kelley posted to Tuolumne County Incident Feed just after 10 a.m. A snow plow vehicle was broken down or stuck on Middlecamp Road heading up toward Sugarpine, David Pickens posted to the same group.
Above Moccasin, the Old Priest Grade remained closed Tuesday, Steve Anker at Priest Station Café told The Union Democrat. All day Tuesday, the California Highway Patrol kept track of multiple traffic hazards, stuck vehicles and non-injury crashes in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.
More weather coming
Two more cold winter storms are expected Friday through Sunday, National Weather Service forecasters in Sacramento said Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday are expected to be dry and cold. Wet weather is expected to return with a pair of cold systems coming toward the Central Sierra beginning Friday.
The first system looks to be the weaker of the two, and the second is likely to bring heavier snowfall amounts. Snow levels will likely be low enough to bring snowfall into the upper foothills again with each of the approaching storms. Snow levels with both storm systems are expected to drop to 2,500-foot elevations.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.