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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

California storm brings more rain and topples trees

A power pole crew works to free a power line after a tree fell on it during a recent storm in Wilton, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.

By Shawn Hubler, Soumya Karlamanga and Mike Ives

A powerful winter storm system that toppled trees and knocked out electricity was moving across California on Thursday, bringing more rain, wind and snow to the already battered state.

The storm, one of several that is expected to pound the West Coast this month, was particularly disruptive in the Bay Area, where a combination of high winds and saturated ground conditions downed trees, which damaged power lines and disrupted travel.

Bay Area Rapid Transit, which ferries thousands of commuters to work each day, warned of systemwide delays because of fallen trees and continuing wet weather conditions.

In Burlingame, near San Francisco International Airport, a tree fell onto power lines near a set of train tracks, shutting down rail service Thursday morning. And a mudslide was blocking one lane of Highway 1, according to the police in Pacifica, south of San Francisco.

As of Thursday morning, about 170,000 customers in California were without electricity, according to the tracking site Flash flood watches and winter storm warnings covered large swaths of the state, and about 600,000 residents were under high wind warnings.

In San Francisco, crews were working to remove trees and clean streets littered with debris from the heavy winds. Near the city’s main public library, a family was rescued after a tree fell onto their car Wednesday night. “Falling trees continue to be a concern,” the library warned on Twitter after the incident.

Authorities blamed at least two deaths Wednesday on the storm. In Fairfield, California, northeast of San Francisco, a 19-year-old woman died after the car she was driving hydroplaned and crashed into a utility pole, police said. And a 2-year-old was killed when a redwood tree fell on a mobile home in Occidental, a rural community in Sonoma County, said Josh Cerda, a firefighter engineer with the local volunteer fire department.

Up to 3 inches of rain fell overnight around Northern California and about 1 1/2 inches in Sacramento, Johnnie Powell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento, said Thursday morning. Winds peaked at around 60 mph in Redding and at about 50 mph in the Sacramento region, he said.

Parts of Southern California’s coast could see heavy rains later Thursday. That moisture raised the prospect of rapid runoff along the state’s coast and interior valleys, as well as in the Sierra Nevada foothills and in areas around burn scars left by wildfires, a weather service advisory said.

As a result, several school districts around the Bay Area canceled classes Thursday. More than a dozen school districts in flood-prone San Mateo County, just south of San Francisco, announced they would be closed Thursday, as did nine in Sonoma County.

Some parks across Northern California were also either partially or fully closed for the day.

The storm is part of a series of atmospheric rivers — channels of moisture from the tropical Pacific Ocean. Further rounds of heavy precipitation are expected to hit California on Saturday and again Monday.

Scientists are not sure how climate change affects the likelihood that atmospheric rivers will crash into California’s coast in rapid-fire succession again. Scientists are studying whether global warming might be shifting the way winds carry moisture around the atmosphere.

When such storms are particularly severe or sweep through in rapid succession, they can deliver too much water too quickly to a state that has lately been parched by drought and scorched by wildfires.

“This is an extreme weather event, and we’re moving from extreme drought to extreme flood,” Karla Nemeth, the director of California’s Department of Water Resources, told reporters Wednesday. “What that means is, a lot of our trees are stressed. After three years of intensive drought, the ground is saturated, and there is significant chance of downed trees that will create significant problems.”

California has taken a pounding this month, even as the heavy rain and snow have brought a measure of relief to the state’s giant agricultural industry. An atmospheric river that drenched the West Coast last week killed at least five people in Oregon. A related storm hit earlier this week, causing widespread flooding in the Bay Area and at least four deaths in California.

In Elk Grove, south of Sacramento, the Wilton Rancheria tribe said Tuesday that flooding had damaged sacred burial grounds along the Cosumnes River in Wilton, imperiling “hundreds of unmarked Wilton Rancheria ancestral burial sites.”

With more bad weather on the way, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency Wednesday, saying he expected more highway closures, infrastructure failures and mandatory evacuations in the coming days.

Several communities across California issued evacuation orders, including in an area of San Benito County, south of San Jose, where a failure at a hydropower dam was expected to produce flooding.

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