It’s only just begun |

It’s only just begun

Dan Thrift/Tahoe TribuneMatt Sharon, left, and Ingo LogZ of South Lake Tahoe get a tug off a berm from a city police car Monday on Highway 50.

As a severe winter storm packed a powerful punch that stranded some motorists and knocked out power to thousands, climatologists have all but thrown out the welcome mat to El Ni-o about a week before Christmas.

The tropical weather condition, named after the Christ child, brings with it typical patterns like heavy precipitation, a strong jet stream and a lineup of consecutive storms.

One exception shows the unpredictability of weather. The higher latitude of the storm front’s entry point is out of character, according to the Western Regional Climate Center.

“When the flow is moving that fast and comes out in a certain trajectory, we tend to get one after another,” center climatologist Kelly Redmond said. “The speeds of these winds are consistent with El Ni-o. This was one of the strongest wind storms we’ve seen ever.”

More than 4,000 South Shore customers lost power Monday, prompting Sierra Pacific Power to request voluntary conservation efforts.

Gusts reaching 129 mph were reported on Lake Tahoe’s North Shore on the ridge crests, according to the National Weather Service.

The weather service also reported 6 feet of snow above 8,000 feet from Sunday to Monday night. Lake level snowfall was estimated at half that amount.

With as dramatic and long-awaited as this latest storm turned out to be, it still failed to make the 24-hour record set on Feb. 3, 1989, at 51 inches.

“It’s pretty typical for this time of year,” weather service meteorologist Rudy Cruz said.

But the wrath of Mother Nature appears far from over.

With one slight reprieve Wednesday night, a series of storms has been predicted to last through Sunday.

This last storm hit the Sierra Nevada with a vengeance, providing on-and-off closures of the major thoroughfares of Highway 50 and Interstate 80. Chain controls were required over all Sierra Nevada passes.

In town, the snow and wind weighed down power lines and knocked over trees.

One unwelcomed pine came crashing into Brian Lennon’s home on Butler Avenue.

“I was in the garage and I heard a thump. I just thought it was snow falling off the roof,” he said.

Much to Lennon’s surprise, the tree snapped from its base 70 feet up and careened into the front entrance of the rental house. It was the first week there for the seven-year Tahoe resident.

Fire and power company crews responded to trees tipped onto power lines from Sierra tract to Tahoe Valley, with one on Utah Avenue causing a brown-out for nearby residents.

The flicker of flames kept Steve Deasy at a safe distance.

“I was backing up my truck (out of the driveway), and I saw it just keel over,” Deasy said.

Sierra Pacific sent out a crew of 200 — including crews from Palm Springs and Las Vegas — to help restore power to 3,800 homes and businesses. Many in Meyers, Alpine County, Round Hill, Glenbrook, Al Tahoe and Black Bart woke up in the dark. Signal lights were out, adding more challenges to motorists negotiating on Highway 50. At times, the sticky snow collecting on the signals only offered a sliver of light.

Vehicles stuck in snowbanks or on berms dotted the road sides, keeping towing companies busy.

“When it snows, everybody gets in it,” Lake Tahoe Pro Tow Manager Bill Hamilton said.

He estimated his crew stayed five times busier than usual, with 30 calls by mid-afternoon Monday.

The winter storm placed a damper on holiday plans at Park Avenue, canceling efforts for a community open house at the Marriott Grand Residence Club complex today.

Water officials see the light at the end of the tunnel. The last few storms raised Lake Tahoe’s level a third of an inch. The lake, measured at 6,223.07 feet before Saturday, was recorded at the lowest level in eight years.

“This series of storms is what we look for. We certainly need the moisture,” federal water master Garry Stone of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said. “But obviously we have a long way to go and don’t have the benefit yet of the snowmelt.”

The Department of Water Resources will take its first snow survey of the season in the first week of January.

— Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at

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