Cold and wet late-season storms like those in the Mother Lode last week, over the weekend and this week can be interpreted as a blessing and a curse, some business owners and residents who live and work along Highways 4, 108 and 120 said Monday.

Shawn and Jill Seale, owners of Sierra Nevada Adventure Co. retail stores in Murphys, Arnold and Sonora, have been in the Mother Lode for 25 years, said Shawn Seale.

“The weather is always a wildcard,” he said.

Usually their concerns are more about winter because winter seasons can be so inconsistent, Shawn Seale said in a phone interview. This year they’ve had a fantastic winter, because more people need specialty equipment and clothing to get out and enjoy the snow.

“This is the best winter we’ve ever had,” Shawn Seale said, checking it off with his wife. “But there’s a flipside. A great winter usually means a late start to summer. So we do expect a slow start for backpacking and paddle sports. We think it’s probably not going to kick in until late June or early July.”

The Seales said they got snow for two to three hours in Arnold on Sunday, but it didn’t stick. Shawn Seale said he thinks the wet weather last week and this past weekend probably affected business at all three of their stores, and it definitely reduced turnout for the Calaveras County Fair & Jumping Frog Jubilee.

“The town of Murphys had a much quieter weekend than they normally do this time of year,” Shawn Seale said. “The county fair and frog jump usually bring a lot of people.”

The Seales said they are excited about having all the rivers and lakes and reservoirs full of water this summer. Just a few years ago they dealt with four consecutive years of drought. At this point last year, the Mother Lode was already in fire season, and that was really bad for business.

“This year it looks like we won’t have to worry about fires for at least the next 30 days,” Shawn Seale said. “Nothing hurts business worse than these massive fires.”

Highway 108

Micki Rucker, former owner of Funky Junk in downtown Sonora, has been living with her husband, Bob Rucker, up in Mi-Wuk Village and Sugarpine the past 18 years. She said she was home part of the day Sunday and it snowed all day up at their place in Sugarpine.

She posted video of snow falling on their balcony to social media shortly after 12 p.m. Sunday with the exclamation “WHAAAATTT??? ITS MAY 19!!!”

“Two years ago we had quite a bit of snow up here in late May, too,” Micki Rucker said in a phone interview. “When we first moved up here it was like clockwork, we’d get one last big cold storm in early May. Then the ferns would start growing like crazy.”

She said she agrees that late-season wet weather storms are probably a double-edged sword. She said people at Dodge Ridge Ski Resort are especially vulnerable to the unpredictability of when cold, wet storms will bring more snow and rain to higher elevations.

“I’ve noticed the winters used to be really good, then we had the drought,” Micki Rucker said. “This past winter is one of the best we’ve had. But I agree it could mean more fuel for fires. We know people in the valley, we were down in Merced yesterday, too. We know people who grow almonds, tomatoes, corn, raise cattle. And these late storms, especially ones with hail, the buds have already budded out and the hail knocks the buds off. That’s half their crop right there.”

She said she’s noticed recently when she drives to Merced and other parts of the Central Valley that it’s already dried out and cured a lot of grasses and other vegetation. She said she’s scared to death of fires this year.

Highway 120

Workers at Priest Station Café in Big Oak Flat at the top of Old Priest Grade and New Priest Grade also dealt with snow Sunday. Steve Anker, owner of Priest Station Café, posted photos to social media of employee Matt Cornell trying to scrape snow off large green shade sails Anker put up a few weeks ago, back when he thought there would be no more rain or snow.

“It’s a mixed bag,” Anker said of the late May change in weather from springtime sunny to cold and wet. “We’ve had about a third less this past weekend and last week. It was hailing and snowing up here Sunday.”

Anker emphasized that he personally loves the wet weather, he finds walking in the rain magical, it’s a fact of life when the weather changes unexpectedly, and those surprises are positive, too.

But the downside, Anker said, is the increased precipitation now will result in an explosion of more fire fuels in June and July. Late storms will add more fire fuels in the next couple months, there’s no way around that. Priest Station Café is at the top of steep Rattlesnake Creek Canyon, which is carpeted with the fire-prone chaparral mix of fuels that include oak and manzanita.

Anker said he believed the last time he saw snow so late in May was May 31, 2009. He said it was just a dusting of snow compared to what fell Sunday. That hail and snow, along with 4 inches of rain last week, may be an omen for increased fire fuels this summer, Anker said.

“Most of the time May is dry,” said Anker, whose family has been running Priest Station Café for six generations.

Anker said the most dramatic change in the weather he’s seen over the years is that there used to be a lot more regular monsoonal afternoon thunderstorm activity in June, July and August. He has noticed far less afternoon thunderstorms in the Central Sierra over the past four decades.

Cal Fire

Late May storms are rare in the Mother Lode, according to meteorological data recorded locally and by state and federal scientists. The Union Democrat newspaper reported quarter-sized hail in Pinecrest and torrential rains in parts of Tuolumne and Calaveras counties on May 28, 2009.

A business owner in Strawberry said he had a lot of motorcycles parked under trees that day.

Adam Frese, forester for Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit, said Monday the short-term benefits of cold, wet, late-season storms include short-term reductions in fire dangers and fire behavior.

Frese said new growth resulting from rains and snow in May is not expected to significantly affect fire behavior later this year.

Cal Fire is urging people to take advantage of the current cooler, wetter weather to create defensible space around their residences and homes, and to reduce hazardous fuel loading on their properties.

Outlook

Weather record keepers say the wet spell that started last week has brought at least 3.5 inches of precipitation to the Mother Lode’s primary watersheds, which include the Stanislaus River and the Tuolumne River basins. That’s 47.7 inches for the water year that started Oct. 1, and it’s 126 percent of average for the date May 20.

Short-term forecasts for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties show more rain, a quarter-inch to a half-inch, is possible for foothill towns like Sonora late Monday and Tuesday, with a winter weather advisory for higher elevations in effect from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday.

Later this week, Wednesday through Friday, residents can expect high temperatures 10 to 15 degrees cooler than normal, with chances of foothill and mountain showers, and light, high mountain snow.

There are also chances for more widespread showers and thunderstorms and high mountain snow for the Memorial Day weekend.

None of the high mountain passes connecting the Mother Lode with the Eastside Sierra are expected to open this week or this weekend. Friday was the previous target date for the opening of Ebbetts Pass on Highway 4, and Sonora Pass on Highway 108.

Storms last week prompted Caltrans District 10 officials to abandon that target date, and there is no estimated time of opening for either Ebbetts Pass or Sonora Pass. There is also no estimated opening date for Tioga Pass on Highway 120.

“It is our goal to open the passes by the Friday prior to Memorial Day weekend every year,” Warren Alford with Caltrans district 10 said Monday afternoon. “This year was no exception but given the heavy snow accumulation this winter and the late storms, we knew it would be a challenge to meet the goal this year . . . We expect to be making an announcement within the next day or so with a better estimate.”

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

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