Snowstorm dumps 5 feet on Calif.

A severe winter storm approaching the Sierra Nevada and the Lake Tahoe Basin causes delays at the base of US 50 in Meyers, Calif,. on Friday, January, 4, 2008. A fierce arctic storm pounded California on Friday, threatening to soak mudslide-prone canyons already charred by wildfires and to paralyze the mountains with deep snow.

Chad Lundquist/The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, January 5, 2008 at 5:21 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 5, 2008 at 5:21 p.m.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - A dangerous layer of heavy snow covered the Northern California mountains and a levee break flooded hundreds of homes in Nevada on Saturday as a major storm continued pummeling the West Coast.

Thousands of homes and businesses had been blacked out in California, Oregon and Washington and thousands of residents had been told to leave their homes in mudslide-prone areas of Southern California. The mandatory evacuation orders were later lifted, though residents were urged to stay away from their homes.

Avalanche warnings were posted for the backcountry of the central Sierra Nevada and flash flood warnings were in effect for many areas of Southern California, where large swaths of hillsides had been denuded by the fall's wildfires.

Remote sensors and ski areas in the high Sierra Nevada had recorded up to 5 feet since Friday morning, and the west side of the Lake Tahoe Basin already had 4 to 5 feet by Friday night, the National Weather Service office in Reno, Nev., said Saturday.

Rain and wind from the third storm in as many days arrived in California's capital before the last one finished dumping snow in the mountains.

As much as 9 feet of snow was possible in the Sierra by Sunday. "Attempting to travel in the Sierra will put your life at risk," the weather service warned.

East of the Sierra in Nevada's Lyon County, a levee broke early Saturday along an agricultural canal, spilling water as much as 3 feet deep into the town of Fernley and stranding about 3,500 people, authorities said. Rescuers used school buses, boats and helicopters to take people to shelters.

No injuries were reported.

The Fernley area had gotten heavy rain on Friday plus snow, but a canal official said rodents burrowing in the canal's earthen banks might have started the break.

Flights were grounded Friday and trucks overturned in Northern California as wind gusted to 80 mph during the second wave of the arctic storm that has sent trees crashing onto houses, cars and roads. The National Weather Service recorded gusts up to 165 mph on mountaintops northwest of Lake Tahoe on Friday.

"If you take the wind gusts, the snowfall and all of it together, it's definitely one of the biggest storms we've experienced in a number of years," said weather service meteorologist Scott McGuire.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski declared a state of emergency for Umatilla County because of wind damage.

As the storm moved east, whiteout conditions and up to 4 feet of snow were forecast in the Colorado mountain. High wind overturned a tractor-trailer rig in Colorado Springs, briefly closing Interstate 25. Later, multiple accidents closed eastbound I-70 just east of Vail.

At least one death was blamed on the storm, a woman killed by a falling tree in Oregon.

In the south, residents of Orange County canyons that were stripped by wildfires last fall making them susceptible to mudslides nervously watched weather reports to learn when they might be hit by the fierce wind and heavy downpours forecast for the area.

About 3,000 people in four canyons had been told to leave their homes by 7 p.m. Friday, Orange County fire Capt. Mike Blawn said.

However, there was no indication how many obeyed, and mandatory evacuation orders were later lifted. "We have been hearing that very small percentage of them actually evacuated," Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion said.

In one of the four canyons, Modjeska, thick mud coated roads Saturday as Gene Corona, 72, wore hip boots and a raincoat as he used a shovel to repair erosion in a channel he had dug to carry water away from his home.

"I made the rounds last night, every hour on the hour, whenever stuff started breaking through," he said. "I saved my house. It's my home, and insurance doesn't cover mudslides."

Flash flood warnings were in effect Saturday for broad swaths of Southern California.

In the Sierra Nevada, the California Department of Transportation said Interstate 80, the main east-west link between Northern California and Nevada, was reopened Saturday, but tire chains were mandatory on a 60-mile stretch. While the highway was shut down during the night, the Red Cross set up a 200-bed shelter in Truckee for stranded motorists.

More than 450,000 homes and businesses from the Bay Area to the Central Valley were in the dark early Saturday, down from more than 1.6 million the day before. It could be days before all the lights are back on, Pacific Gas & Electric officials said.

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