A pair of cold winter storms are expected to track far enough south to bring more rain and snow to Calaveras and Tuolumne counties Friday through Monday, raising concerns for thousands of residents and businesses still without power in winter storm-battered Tuolumne County and elsewhere in the Mother Lode.

Overnight lows for the Sonora area are expected to drop to about 25 degrees Fahrenheit by early Thursday, 30 degrees early Friday, 36 early Saturday, and 37 degrees early Sunday.

“The greatest chances for precipitation will be Friday night and Saturday,” Cory Mueller, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said Wednesday in a phone interview. “Then another round of precipitation is coming Saturday night into Sunday and possibly into Monday.”

Both storms are bringing moderate chances of snow levels coming down to the upper foothills, at elevations from 2,500 feet to 3,000 feet. The first storm system appears to be the weaker of the two, forecasters said. The second system could bring heavier snowfall amounts.

Outages

There were more than 9,200 Pacific Gas and Electric customers without power in the utility's Yosemite Division comprised of Tuolumne and Mariposa counties, with most of those outages in the northern portions near Sonora, PG&E staff told Tuolumne County officials Wednesday.

That total included 4,341 customers in the Sonora area, 1,595 in Groveland, 754 in the town of Tuolumne, 607 in Soulsbyville, 509 in Twain Harte, and 17 in Columbia, PG&E staff said, emphasizing the estimate is for an approximate number of meters that are out, and does not distinguish between commercial, residential and other categories.

"This storm has created an additional danger that is delaying our restoration efforts," PG&E staff told Tuolumne County officials. "Years of drought and tree mortality have created an extraordinarily unsafe situation in many areas that have experienced heavy snowfall. The series of storms this week have resulted in snow falling in low-elevation areas that typically don’t get snowfall."

Crews responding to power outages have experienced trees falling on roads and blocking access, trees falling on vehicles, and trees falling into power lines that fall on vehicles, PG&E staff said.

To ensure safety of crews and the public, PG&E crews and contractors are taking additional safety measures. In some cases, they are pulling crews out of areas that are deemed unsafe. In other areas, restoration efforts may be delayed for inspection and removal of trees that present hazards to crews and the public.

People who work for Comcast, an internet provider in the Sonora area, said service has been out due to the winter weather. As of Wednesday morning, they said they didn’t know for sure when service would be restored, and added that it could be restored sometime Wednesday afternoon.

Coping without power

Some people without electricity for more than 24 hours are resorting to old-school refrigeration, cooking and heating strategies.

Elaine Hagen lives at the base of Ponderosa Hills off Tuolumne Road and she said she lost power about 3 a.m. Tuesday. Twelve hours later, she realized she wasn’t going to get power back before sundown Tuesday so she took all her perishable foods out of the refrigerator, put them in plastic containers, and then put the plastic containers in an old-fashioned ice box she dug in the snow outside her home.

“We can just grab what we need, like the milk, put some on the cereal, and put it back outside in the ice box,” Hagen said Wednesday in a phone interview. “We’re using candles for lighting. We have a wood stove so we can heat up soup.”

Higher up in Ponderosa Hills, Hagen said, she has neighbors who rely on a well with an electric-powered pump. So they are without water and power for the time-being, Hagen said.

Yosemite access re-opened

Federal employees in Yosemite Valley re-opened access to the park after imposing a hard closure at all entrances on Tuesday. Highways 120, 140 and 41 were all open as of noon Wednesday, as well as Big Oak Flat Road and all roads in Yosemite Valley, with all vehicles required to have chains on or 4-wheel-drive with snow tires.

Yosemite Fire and Aviation posted photos from a structure fire early Tuesday, which crews had to fight in 2 feet of snow with 450 feet of hose lays and broken trees everywhere.

There were at least two incidents Tuesday in Tuolumne County where snow removal vehicles became disabled and stuck, one on Highway 49 near Fraguero Road in the Tuttletown area, and one up on Middlecamp Road heading toward Sugarpine.

Caltrans District 10 had drivers working 22 snow plow vehicles and three rotary snow blowers Tuesday, said Caltrans spokesperson Rick Estrada, adding he was unsure how many of those vehicles became disabled.

Snow removal operator injured

There was also an incident before noon Tuesday in Yosemite National Park where a snow removal vehicle crashed, the driver was injured, and an ambulance responded to take the injured driver to a hospital for treatment.

Joe Machado of Sonora said he and his brother, Frank Machado, went to Yosemite to try to snowshoe in the park, but a federal employee at the Big Oak Flat entrance told them there was a hard closure in effect for the whole park. While the Machados and another snowshoed visitor were standing there with the federal employee, an ambulance came out of the park, exiting westbound on Highway 120 with emergency lights flashing.

The federal employee said the patient in the ambulance was a snow removal vehicle operator who was injured in a crash inside the park. The National Park Service maintains its own fleet of snow removal vehicles, and snow removal is one of the most dangerous occupations in Yosemite, with at least two deaths related to snow removal and maintenance since 1984.

One man, Barry Lee Hance, 43, a National Park Service employee and a resident of Groveland, died clearing Tioga road in June 1995 when an avalanche crashed down on his bulldozer.

The other man, Sammy Lee Smallwood, 52, a National Park Service maintenance worker for 30 years, died in May 1984 when he was with a crew using dynamite to move rock on Tioga Road one mile east of Tuolumne Meadows. Smallwood was wearing a helmet when he was struck in the head by a large flying rock. Smallwood died in a helicopter during airlift to Modesto.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, the Machado brothers left the Big Oak Flat entrance, drove out Evergreen Road to a trailhead for Carlon Falls, dug out a parking space and snowshoed to a point where they were next to the South Fork Tuolumne River. They took photos that showed snowbanks piled several feet high on both sides of Highway 120 west of Rush Creek Lodge.

2 motorists run crash into snow plows

Two snow plow vehicles were struck by motorists on Highway 4 and Highway 88 during the low-snow storm that moved out of the Central Sierra earlier this week, Warren Alford with Caltrans District 10 said.

The crash on Highway 4 happened Tuesday in Alpine County when a full-size Ford pickup struck a Caltrans snow plow during the heaviest part of the storm. It temporarily took a critical piece of equipment out of the battle to keep the road open at a key time, Alford said. The Ford pickup sustained significant front-end damage. No one was injured and damage to the snow plow didn’t disable it so workers able to get it back up and running.

The other crash involved a civilian motorist’s vehicle striking a Caltrans vehicle Monday on Highway 88 in Amador County, Alford said.

“These incidents happen far too frequently,” Alford said. “Caltrans would like to remind the public not to pass snow plows or other equipment. It’s not only dangerous, it is against the law.”

Warming centers

Nine homeless individuals spent the night last night at a designated warming center set up at Discover Life Seventh-day Adventist Church at 40 Forest Road in Sonora, Clarence Teem, emergency medical services coordinator for Tuolumne County, said in an interview at the church.

As of 1:15 p.m. Wednesday there were 11 people at the shelter and they all identified themselves as homeless, Teem said.

The warming center will be open and staffed for people to stay overnight Wednesday into Thursday, and it will close at 8 a.m. Thursday, said Liz Peterson, OES coordinator for Tuolumne County.

Another shelter will be open at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Word of Life Fellowship in Mi-Wuk Village, Peterson said. No pets are allowed at the warming centers.

According to PG&E, there are also warming centers open at Greeley Hill Community Center, 10332 Fiske Road; the Human Services Building, 5362 Lemee Lane in Mariposa; and Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church, 39696 Highway 41 in Oakhurst.



Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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