24 inches in 24 hours: Winter storm wreaks havoc on roads up the hill
January 10, 2019
A winter storm that swept through the area early this week brought more than 24 inches of snow in 24 hours on Sunday, leaving many gridlocked in traffic on Interstate 80 when California Highway Patrol closed the freeway.
While winter weather typically slows down traffic on I-80, highway officials said road conditions were unusually poor.
"I've worked in the office for 10 years and it was a day for a perfect storm," said California Highway Patrol Officer Pete Mann. "We were trying to tell people not to travel on Saturday and Sunday and basically nobody listened."
Mann said the number of cars on the roadways was higher than normal for the final weekend of the holiday season.
“I’ve worked in the office for 10 years and it was a day for a perfect storm. We were trying to tell people not to travel on Saturday and Sunday and basically nobody listened.”
— Pete Mann, California Highway Patrol Officer
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"Sunday was a particularly memorable traffic day," said Truckee Town Council member Morgan Goodwin, who posted a brief survey on Facebook to learn more about the experience drivers had over the weekend.
Of the 230 responses Goodwin received, 100 people said they spent three hours or more in their cars.
While most of the drivers who responded to the survey were coming from a ski resort and headed to Truckee neighborhoods, Goodwin said some were headed to the hospital or simply coming home from the grocery store. Out of all the responses, 35 percent said their travel experience was among their top five worst traffic experiences in Truckee, while 39 percent said it was their absolute worst.
"I would offer that this is somewhere that we can make some improvements," said Goodwin. "All this is probably a place for Truckee to be more vocal to our state leadership," he said, adding that the problem is "never going to go away completely."
Bad for traffic, good for recreation
Over the last seven days, Northstar California received 53 inches of snow, with 26 inches on Sunday, while Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows reported 45 inches of snow in the past week, including 28 inches during Sunday's storm.
That dump was welcomed by resorts that had seen scant snow since just before the holiday season, helping to open more acreage and lifts to reach it.
Northstar had 13 of 20 lifts operating and 90 of its 100 trails open Thursday. Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows had 32 of 42 lifts turning and 209 of 278 runs open.
Sugar Bowl reported 55 inches over the past seven days. Boreal Mountain topped out at 60 inches.
Winter storms will return late in the weekend and into next week with a 30 percent chance of snow Sunday, but more likely heavier snow on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.
"It was certainly an unprecedented day," said Truckee Police Chief Robert Leftwich.
While Truckee police along with Caltrans and California Highway Patrol acknowledged traffic is typical for a holiday weekend, Leftwich said it was a "particularly congested departure."
The chief said officials were more proactive about the traffic near the end of the day. But, he said the issue became more of a public safety emergency when it became clear that Interstate 80 would be closed all night. When traffic became gridlocked, Leftwich said they forced drivers to flush the streets of Truckee at various times.
"I'm sure that upset a lot of people. We're obviously concerned about making sure that people have that quintessential Truckee experience while they're here," he said. "But there were several people in several significant pipelines and Truckee is the collection point for all of those."
Moving forward, he said the town should focus on more preventative communication, working with resort associations in the region, to effectively communicate what they anticipate the weather and traffic conditions will be.
"That collaborative message is something we can continue to work on," he said.
Leftwich also said there are most likely steps the town can take to stop additional gridlock in some areas, especially on Donner Pass Road.
"I am acutely aware of what the gridlock along Donner Pass Road is," he said, noting he experiences the same traffic getting home to the west end of Donner Lake.
Leftwich emphasized the importance of area residents signing up for Nixle to receive road condition reports and winter weather warnings directly from the police department through text messages alerts.
"(That's) the single best thing you can do for us to communicate with you in an effective way, either for situations like this and also moving into summer for wildfire preparedness and evacuations," he said. "It's critical."
Hannah Jones is a reporter for the Sierra Sun, a sister publication of The Union. She can be reached at 530-550-2652 or firstname.lastname@example.org.