SODA SPRINGS, Calif. (AP) — Chris Rivest’s father sent him from San Francisco to the family vacation cabin near the Sierra Nevada crest with a seemingly simple chore — clear it and the driveway of snow.
Easy for him to say. When Rivest arrived earlier this week at the cabin near Soda Springs, about 90 miles northeast of Sacramento, the snow was so deep it nearly touched the power lines crossing in front of the cabin. Snow was piled at least 10 feet high on top of the deck of the A-frame home.
“My dad wants me to clear the deck,” the ponytailed 21-year-old said Monday, as he labored to clear the driveway with a snow blower. “How do I even begin to do that? Where would I put the snow? This is absurd.”
Absurdly deep is how Sierra residents and travelers might describe this season’s snowfall, which is setting records at some ski resorts and nearing records at official gauging stations.
The last round of storms that blew across much of the 400-mile-long range during the weekend added several feet to what has become a snowpack of historic proportions, and one that promises an end to California’s lingering drought.
After state water officials release the results of their latest snow survey Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to officially declare the drought over, said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the governor’s office. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought in June 2008 and a state of emergency because of low water levels in February 2009.
The accumulations are measured two ways: current snow on the ground and accumulated snow for the season, which began with the first storms last fall.
More than 61 feet of snow has fallen in the Sierra high country so far this season, second only to the 1950-51 season when a total of 65 feet fell, according to records kept by the California Department of Transportation. While spring has arrived, the Sierra typically gets some snow in April, bringing the prospect of an all-time record.
Seasonal snow accumulation records already have been set at some ski resorts, including Squaw Valley USA near the north shore of Lake Tahoe, Heavenly Mountain Resort on the lake’s south side and Mammoth Mountain, the sprawling Eastern Sierra resort that attracts Southern California skiers and snowboarders.
At Squaw Valley, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics, ski patrol guides had to create tunnels just to reach their warming huts and avalanches broke out windows at two lift stations, said Wes Schimmelpfenning, 68, who has been a patrolman there for 48 years. Nearly 59 feet of snow has fallen there so far this winter, beating the old record by 29 inches.
Squaw is extending its season through Memorial Day, while Mammoth, with a peak elevation exceeding 11,000 feet, might remain open through Independence Day.
“I’m out plowing driveways, and we can’t even find the houses,” said Norm Sayler, who used to run Donner Ski Ranch along Interstate 80 and now operates a snow-plowing business near the top of Donner Summit. “I’ve been up here since 1954, and personally this has been the toughest winter I’ve ever had here.”
Snow is piled so high in some areas that it is causing some roofs to collapse and stressing others.
Emergency services officials are warning mountain homeowners to be wary not only of failing roofs, but of problems with carbon monoxide, natural gas and propane from vents and flues blocked by snow. Roofs partially collapsed last weekend at a bowling alley, logging business and hardware store in the Sierra foothills town of Pollock Pines, about 60 miles east of Sacramento.
The drought is a receding memory now for most mountain residents.
“I better not hear Sacramento talking about drought for a while,” said Max Ramsey, 38, who was chipping snow and ice Monday off the roof of a building that houses the Soda Springs General Store, post office and a vacation rental property business. “You get 60 feet of snow, it does a lot of damage.”
Building owner Tony Paduano said his wife heard “a large cracking noise” on Sunday as one of the roof’s support beams gave way.
The California winter started off strong in early fall, dried out in January, then settled in with a series of heavy storms in February and March.
They dumped so much snow at the University of California Central Sierra Snow Lab near Soda Springs that the 15-foot-tall measuring stake was buried. Researcher Randall Osterhuber had to extend the stake another six feet to keep up with the more than 18 feet of snow on the ground, the fourth-deepest since record-keeping began there in 1946. More than 47 feet of snow has fallen there this season.
Old railroad records dating to 1879 put the deepest accumulation near Donner Summit at 66 feet in 1938. The most snow on the ground at any one time was 31 feet, in both 1880 and 1890.
Residents near Soda Springs said they had been without electricity or phone service intermittently over the past 10 days after storms toppled power and telephone lines. Patty Jennings, Soda Springs’ relief postmaster, said that with no power, she rigged a car battery to operate her wood pellet stove to keep warm as snow piled to the eaves of her three-story home.
The snow piled up above the third story windows at the house 18-year-old Luis Rico is sharing with five other employees of the nearby Royal Gorge cross-country skiing resort, which closed all last week because of the storms.
The friends occupied their time by building a 15-foot-tall igloo with blocks of snow they cut with a chain saw.
“The power kept going out, there’s no phones. We’d come out, shovel out the cars, go back inside,” Rico recalled.
One morning, they woke up to find the doorway completely buried and had to tunnel their way out.
“We pretty much had to swim to get out of there,” he said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)