Chief’s Corner: Winter preparedness in the Sierra

Steve Leighton / Chief's Corner
Steve Leighton

Accumulation from the recent series of atmospheric rivers is reminiscent of this same time last year, after the Sierra experienced impressive December precipitation. The Department of Water Resources conducted its first snow survey of the 2023 season with a recorded snow depth at 177% of average at the Phillips Station. This is wonderful for our drought; however the ground is already saturated, and with rain and snow forecast for the foreseeable future, we are reminded of the importance of emergency preparedness in all seasons.

The best way to keep your family safe is to plan and be prepared before a weather event arrives. Stay prepared for winter impacts and extended power outages. Pay attention to local alerts, never cross flood waters, and avoid downed power lines. Follow the National Weather Service for weather, and visit CalTrans Quick Maps and or call 511 for road conditions. Be aware that storms in our region can impact all primary roads at once. Keep vehicles stocked and prepared for extended road closures after the precipitation stops in the event of other winter impacts; including snow removal, clearing accidents and stranded motorists, dealing with downed trees and powerlines, and other damage that may delay the safe opening of roads after the weather has passed. Wind may reduce visibility and further extend road closures. Make sure any detour leads to a safe, maintained road, and notify friends or relatives of the route taken, and when you expect to arrive at your destination.

Know the avalanche danger/conditions where you are traveling. If your vehicle is caught in an avalanche, immediately shut off your engine to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, as it cannot dissipate if it is blocked by snow. Remain calm, call for help, and use your emergency preparedness kit with blankets, food, and water.

Heed all warnings and plan activities following the recommendations of the Sierra Avalanche Center, and avoid backcountry activity in dangerous conditions.

Consider the following preparations for safe winter driving in the Sierra:

  • Pack an emergency kit with a cell phone charger, jumper cables/jump box, a flashlight, warm clothes/boots/blankets, a shovel, snow traction devices, emergency reflectors, food, and water.
  • Start your trip with a full tank of fuel/full charge and fill your windshield wiper reservoir with a high- quality winter fluid with de-icer.
  • Before driving, always clear your vehicle of snow, including the rooftop.
  • California Law requires headlights to be on if windshield wipers are on to make vehicles visible to other drivers. Daytime running lights don’t illuminate taillights, but low beams do.
  • If stopped or stalled in winter weather, protect yourself from carbon monoxide poisoning by clearing the exhaust pipe of snow, and don’t run your car for long periods with the windows up or in an enclosed space; run the car just long enough to stay warm.
  • Carry an emergency kit for each member of your family and pets, including cash, medication, prescription lenses, water, pet food, etc.
  • Know what local radio stations are used for emergency information.

Steve Leighton is fire chief for Meeks Bay and North Tahoe fire protection districts. Leighton is a 30-year veteran of the fire service.

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