First Major Storm This Year Hits Northern California, Bringing Flash Flood And Even Blizzard Warnings

An atmospheric river weather system is hitting Northern California, bringing the threat of downpours that could unleash flash flooding and destructive debris flows from wildfire burn scars. 

Michelle Mead, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Sacramento, told CapRadio’s Insight that the storm will be on the stronger side, bringing “some heavy bands of precipitation.”

According to Mead, California can typically expect five to seven big storms a year, and this is our first one in 2021. She also explained that the system will be strong because it’ll sit over the area for several days, bringing a pretty strong cold front along with rain. 

Places like the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area can expect rain, while other regions may see snow. The weather service has also issued a rare blizzard warning for the Lake Tahoe area and as far south as Mammoth Lakes. Avalanche danger will also be high.

“It’s just a crazy storm,” Mead said. “Stay hunkered down, stay home and stay prepared.

As of 10 p.m. Tuesday, more than 60,000 SMUD customers were without power, with gusts of up to 58 mph reported at the Sacramento International Airport.

Mead joined CapRadio’s Insight Tuesday morning to talk about the storm and how Sacramentans can prepare. 

Interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Interview Highlights

On what we’re bracing for with this incoming storm

So this winter so far has been pretty dismal. We are less than 50% of average for precipitation in the valley and only about 55% of average for snowfall in the mountain — so not off to a good start at all. 

The systems we’ve had come through have been kind of glancing blows, and we haven’t seen a whole lot of impact from them, so this is definitely one that folks need to sit up and pay attention to because this is going to bring lots of impacts.

On how the rain and snow will affect burn scars

Snow will coat the ground, and it will not seep into the small cracks and fissures that are left behind in the burn scar, so you don’t have to worry about debris flow. Rain, on the other hand, we’ve already had a couple of rain showers or rain storms that haven’t really done much of an impact. What makes this one different is it’s a quick-hitting storm with a lot of rain in a short amount of time … the front is not coming through until after midnight tonight. So, folks will be sleeping in their beds, and all of a sudden, they’re going to hear the winds really picking up in the rain as the front is approaching. 

It’s that time frame right ahead of, and as the front is going through, that we’re most worried about. So for the Northern Bay Areas from the LNU, the Glass, the Hennessey, CZU, and SCU, those are the areas we’re watching tonight.

On what to expect in general from this storm

We’re expecting sustained winds, and that’s just blowing generally 35 to 40 miles an hour … starting from the coastal range around midnight. By the time you get to the San Joaquin Valley around 5 a.m., we could see gusts well over 50 to 60 miles an hour when the front is passing through. That is definitely strong enough to blow downed trees, power lines and cause impact to your homes. 

Because we haven’t seen a lot of rain, and it’s going to come in a relatively short amount of time, things like low water crossings or underpasses — those can quickly fill up … but keep in mind, tomorrow morning, if your alarm doesn’t go off because we’re out of power, you might want to take some extra time [driving] … Always check the latest road conditions before you head out, especially in the mountains, because it’s going to be downright nasty — basically from Apple Hill all the way over the path on [Interstate] 80 and from as far south as Red Bluff could see snow all the way towards the Oregon border. 

On avalanche warnings

There is an avalanche advisory out right now for the Tahoe basin, so right around Lake Tahoe. You can go to the Reno Weather Service office and find out the latest information, but the wind is really the driving factor with this avalanche warning. 

When you get winds blowing, and we’re talking in the mountains now, 70 to 80 mile an hour gusts, what it does is that it hammers the snow against the hillside … When you have the wind driving that snow into those little fissures, it can drop that snow, and what’s can cause the avalanche. So it’s just a crazy storm … Stay hunkered down, stay home and stay prepared.

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