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CHP shuts down stretch of I-80 as monster blizzard dumps snow on Sierra Nevada

Cars drive along snowy road as workers move alongside with snow blowers
Workers attempt to clear a road with snow blowers during a snowstorm in Truckee on Friday. | Source: Brooke Hess-Homeier/AP Photo

A powerful blizzard howled Saturday in the Sierra Nevada as the biggest storm of the season shut down a long stretch of Interstate 80 in California and gusty winds and heavy rain hit lower elevations, leaving tens of thousands of homes without power.

More than 10 feet of snow was expected at higher elevations, National Weather Service meteorologist William Churchill said Saturday, creating a “life-threatening concern” for residents in the region around Lake Tahoe and blocking travel on the key east-west freeway.

“Snow totals are already in the feet and will end up by the end of this event, late Sunday, in a range of 5 to 12 feet," Churchill said, predicting highest accumulations at elevations above 5,000 feet.

He said that while the storm may not set records, it was an “extreme blizzard for the Sierra Nevada in particular as well as other portions of Nevada, and even extending into Utah and portions of western Colorado.”

“It’s certainly just about as bad as it gets in terms of the snow totals and the winds," he said. “It doesn’t get much worse than that.”

Earlier, the weather service warned that widespread blowing snow was creating “extremely dangerous to impossible" travel conditions, with wind gusts in the high mountains at more than 100 mph.

Avalanche danger was “high to extreme” in backcountry areas through Sunday evening throughout the central Sierra and greater Lake Tahoe area, the weather service said.

California authorities on Friday shut down 100 miles of I-80, the main route between Reno and Sacramento, due to “spin outs, high winds, and low visibility.” There was no estimate when the freeway would reopen from the California-Nevada border west of Reno to Colfax.

Overnight, emergency crews spent hours trying to get to motorists who were stuck over Donner Summit, CHP said.

"@CaltransDist3 is currently evaluating the roads and we will be working on recovering vehicles left on the freeway after motorists were transported to a safe location," CHP said on X Saturday morning. "There is no estimated time of reopening the freeway, so we suggest you stay home. Stay warm and don’t put yourself and your family in a dangerous situation."

Semi-trucks and cars sit parked on a snowy freeway
A California Department of Transportation checkpoint backs up the westbound traffic on the Interstate 80 in Truckee on Friday. | Source: Andy Barron/AP Photo

Pacific Gas & Electric reported around 8 a.m. Saturday that almost 30,000 households and businesses were without power. In Nevada, utility company NV Energy reported outages for more than 10,000 customers in the Carson City, Reno and Lake Tahoe areas and along the I-80 corridor.

A tornado touched down Friday afternoon in Madera County and caused some damage to an elementary school, said Andy Bollenbacher, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Hanford.

Some ski resorts that shut down Friday said they planned to remain closed on Saturday to dig out with an eye toward reopening Sunday, but most said they would provide updates Saturday morning.

Palisades Tahoe, the largest resort on the north end of Tahoe and site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, closed all chairlifts Saturday due to snow, wind and low visibility.

Several other ski areas also were closed Saturday, including Sugar Bowl, Boreal and Sierra. Heavenly Mountain Resort planned to open late with limited operations.

The storm began barreling into the region Thursday. A blizzard warning through Sunday morning covers a 300-mile (480-kilometer) stretch of the mountains.

Train workers climb onto back of train moving through snowy scene
A train worker climbs aboard a freight train traveling through Truckee on Friday. | Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Some ski lovers raced up to the mountains ahead of the storm.

Daniel Lavely, an avid skier who works at a Reno-area home/construction supply store, was not one of them. He said Friday that he wouldn’t have considered making the hour-drive to ski on his season pass at a Tahoe resort because of the gale-force winds.

But most of his customers Friday seemed to think the storm wouldn’t be as bad as predicted, he said.

“I had one person ask me for a shovel,” Lavely said. “Nobody asked me about a snowblower, which we sold out the last storm about two weeks ago.”

Meteorologists predicted as much as 10 feet of snow was possible in the mountains around Lake Tahoe by the weekend, with 3 to 6 feet in the communities on the lake’s shores and more than a foot possible in the valleys on the Sierra’s eastern front, including Reno.

Yosemite National Park closed Friday, and officials said it would remain closed through at least noon Sunday.

snow covers the awning of a coffee shop
A person shovels show in downtown Truckee on Friday. | Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Andrew Schwartz, the lead scientist at the University of California Berkeley's Central Sierra Snow Lab, said it is possible they could break their modern-day record of about 3.5 feet of snow in a single day from back in 1989.

On the bright side, California water officials said the storm should provide a much-needed boost to the Sierra snowpack, which is vital to the state's water supplies. It stood at 80% of average to date on Thursday, California Department of Water resources officials said.

Rick Grundy, manager of the Chevron Food Mart near Donner Lake just off I-80, said business was slow Friday—people seemed to have taken officials' advice to hunker down. After living in the Truckee area for 20 years, he said he knows how to prepare for bad weather.

"We're pretty well stocked. We knew this was coming," Grundy said. "One thing I've learned, if you are not used to driving in this weather, if you're not used to being in this area, it's not a good idea. You should stay home."

Woman runs down snowy street as trucks drive by
Local runner Jenelle Potvin jogs along Bridge Street in downtown Truckee on Friday. | Source: Andy Barron/AP Photo

In South Lake Tahoe, the lunchtime crowd at Heidi's Pancake House was a third of the typical 60 diners. Even with the worsening forecast, general manager Salvador Ortega expected to stay open, and most of his employees to show up.

"We are one of the restaurants in South Lake Tahoe that don't close unless we don't have power or something breaks down. We're open 365," he said. "Tahoe is a small community. It's rare when an employee doesn't make it to work."

Ortega said he believes the snowfall will ultimately be good for the community and increase tourism once it's safe to travel again.

Stephanie K. Baer contributed reporting.