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Heavy Snow Daunts Even Hardy Town

Truckee is used to the white stuff. But 10 feet in a short span -- plus days in the dark without power -- was more than residents bargained for.

December 25, 2002|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Perched high near Lake Tahoe and notorious for its fierce winter storms, this is a town whose residents are not easily impressed by foul weather.

Yet the last 11 days here have earned the attention of even the hardiest of citizens, as a series of storms dumped more than 10 feet of snow at higher elevations and knocked the power out to more than 2,000 homes. Nearly all the customers had their electricity restored by Tuesday, but many spent most of last week living in the dark.

The hardships for Truckee and other mountain communities provided some good news, however, for the rest of the state. The drifts are building the critical Sierra snowpack in a state that has been struggling its way out of a drought.

The storms boosted a meager Sierra snowpack to 147% of normal in the central Sierra and 149% of normal in the southern part of the range, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

Ed Diamond, an engineer with the agency, pointed out, however, that last winter also started with heavy snows then largely fizzled after Jan. 1.

"It's a matter of whether it will continue to snow at an above-average pace," Diamond said.

He added that more runoff than usual will be soaked up by the ground because the dry spell has left the water table so low in many places.

The heavy snow has also been a boon to holiday skiers.

But many Truckee residents had a hard time in recent days appreciating those benefits. Many lost water and phone service. Schools were forced to shut down early for the holiday break. And the weather was often too lousy to ski at any of the area's seven resorts.

Even getting around was dicey: Interstate 80, the white-knuckler of a road that links the region to the outside world, was opened and closed several times last week because of low visibility and frequent wrecks.

"I've lived in the area since the 1970s, and I've never seen anything like that, with the power outage," said Jerry Lander, the supervisor of local California Department of Transportation crews responsible for clearing Interstate 80. "But that's part of the deal of living in Truckee."

Life for most residents was finally getting back to normal early this week, as thousands of families descended on the region Monday for the biggest ski week of the year.

Town and resort officials expressed relief, having feared that the area's economy would take a hit if Bay Area skiers stayed home because of the outage or poor weather.

"We have a lot of people here, and we have a lot of powder," said Katharine Lange, spokeswoman for Homewood Mountain Resort at Lake Tahoe. "It's so cool."

There may be even more powder soon. There is a 60% chance of snow tonight, and a larger storm is expected to slam into the area this weekend, possibly bringing 12 more inches of snow and more high winds, the National Weather Service said.

The Truckee area already looks as it usually does at the end of winter.

The town of 15,000 sits a few miles east of Donner Pass, directly in the path of storms that sweep off the Pacific and run headlong into the High Sierra. The monster of all winters was in 1931-32, when 819 inches of snow fell in the area, with the runner-up 1981-82, when 796 inches were recorded.

It was just outside town that the Donner Party became bogged down in early autumn snows in 1846. In the end, 41 pioneers died of cold and hunger, and a few survivors resorted to cannibalism.

That tragedy set local expectations for winters that can be an endurance test.

The latest round kicked in the weekend of Dec. 14-15, when unusually warm weather gave way to rain, followed quickly by a heavy and wet snow.

That's when the winds hit. One gust reached 134 mph over the mountain ridges, and sustained gusts of 80 mph to 100 mph were measured in Truckee. An unknown number of trees toppled under the weight of the snow, taking with them many of the power lines that run directly into homes.

The Truckee Donner Public Utility District, joined by crews from as far as the Central Valley, had to go from home to home to reattach the lines. When the onslaught began, the district's line crews worked 28 hours straight, took an eight-hour break and then went back for an 18-hour shift.

"And we've been working 16-hour days ever since," said Jim Wilson, the district's electric utility superintendent. "I'm sorry I'm kind of stuttering a little bit, but I'm kind of gooney myself right now."

The outage could have been worse. Most full-time residents had either wood-burning stoves or furnaces hooked up to propane gas in their homes, allowing them to stay somewhat warm. Refrigerators were packed with snow to keep food fresh.

"That first night was fun. We had candles and kerosene lamps, and we played cards," said Pam Gardner, a 25-year resident who went five days without power. "But that second night it got old fast and, at that point, it just became survival."

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