Late-winter California blizzard continues to rage in Sierra Nevada

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A powerful blizzard raged overnight into 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 customers without power.

Up to 10ft (3 meters) of snow is expected in some areas. The National Weather Service (NWS) said early on Saturday that widespread blowing snow was creating “extremely dangerous to impossible travel conditions”. The combination of snow and high winds was most intense in the Sierra Nevada, with more than 3in (7cm) of snow falling per hour and wind gusts over 100mph (160km/h).

“High to extreme avalanche danger” is expected in the backcountry through Sunday evening throughout the central Sierra, including the greater Lake Tahoe area, the weather service said.

California authorities on Friday shut down 100 miles (160km) of I-80 due to “spin outs, high winds and low visibility”. They had no estimate when the freeway would reopen from the California-Nevada border just west of Reno to near Emigrant Gap, California.

Pacific Gas & Electric reported at about 5am on Saturday that 33,000 households and businesses were without power.

A tornado touched down on Friday afternoon in Madera county and caused some damage to an elementary school, said Andy Bollenbacher, a meteorologist with the NWS Hanford.

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

Palisades Tahoe, the largest resort on the north end of Tahoe and site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, said it hoped to reopen some of the Palisades slopes at the lowest elevation on Saturday but would close all chairlifts for the second day at neighboring Alpine Meadows due to forecasts of “heavy snow and winds over 100mph” (160km/h).

“We have had essential personnel on-hill all day, performing control work, maintaining access roads, and digging out chairlifts, but based on current conditions, if we are able to open at all, there will be significant delays,” Palisades Tahoe said Friday on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The storm began barreling into the region on Thursday. A blizzard warning through Sunday morning covers a 300-mile (482km) stretch of the mountains.

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 on Friday that he wouldn’t have considered making the hour-log drive to ski on his season pass at a Tahoe resort because of the gale-force winds.

But most of his customers on 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 predict as much as 10ft (3 meters) of snow is possible in the mountains around Lake Tahoe by the weekend, with 3-6ft (1-2 meters) in the communities on the lake’s shores and more than a foot (30cm) possible in the valleys on the Sierra’s eastern front, including Reno.

Yosemite national park closed on Friday and officials said it would remain closed through at least noon on Sunday.

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