Russian River set to flood as storm leads to heavy runoff in Sonoma County
Round two of a potent storm lashed the North Coast Wednesday night, with strong winds and pounding rain swamping Sonoma County roads and pushing the lower Russian River above flood levels in Guerneville, where the water was set to rise through Friday morning.
The forecast called for the heaviest rain to fall after 10 p.m. and taper by about dawn Thursday, with showers into Friday.
The first round of the atmospheric river, Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, brought more than 5 inches in the county's wettest spots, the hills west of Healdsburg. More than 3 inches fell across most of the county areas, triggering mudslides and flooding more than a dozen county roads. It swelled streams to the top of their banks and turned vineyards and fields across the region into vast ponds. By 7 p.m. Wednesday night, Venado had seen 8.2 inches of rain and Santa Rosa had 2.88 in the previous 24 hours.
High winds swept across the region as well, with gusts up to 20 miles an hour in Santa Rosa and reaching 59 miles an hour on Mount St. Helena.
Guerneville School District closed its schools Thursday and Two Rock Union School outside of Petaluma dismissed its students early Wednesday due to flooding in the area.
The storm's second wave was expected to match rainfall numbers from the first wave, a one-two punch that had forecasters and authorities concerned Wednesday night about falling trees, power outages, mudslides and additional road closures. Repeatedly, the National Weather Service extended its flood warning Wednesday through Thursday morning for small streams and low-lying areas in the region.
“It's game on again,” Rincon Valley fire Capt. Sid Andreis said Wednesday afternoon as he and hundreds of firefighters countywide waited to see what the night would bring.
Just how high the Russian River would reach depended on the downpour overnight. The latest projection was for a crest of 36.9 feet in Guerneville Friday morning, according to the National Weather Service. Flood stage in town starts at 32 feet and major flooding occurs at about 40 feet.
Wednesday evening brought business as usual in Guerneville, said Betty Spaghetti owner Greg Barnes.
“All of downtown is open for business,” he said. “We're lifting things from dry storage and getting things off the ground, but other than that, all is well. We still have power.”
Guerneville residents didn't seem concerned about storm warnings, and business was brisk for this time of year, Barnes said.
“Normally when the press talks about how bad it's flooding, we're killed immediately, but not tonight,” he said.
Rancho Adobe firefighter Ian Kenealy said Wednesday night all was quiet in his south county area, too.
“You know, actually pretty good, we've had a pretty mellow day. Everybody else around us is getting hit, but we're pretty quiet,” he said.
Firefighters in Sonoma Valley Fire and Cloverdale Fire similarly reported all was calm.
Sonoma County officials planned to activate their emergency operations center Thursday morning to evaluate the weather and extent of the flooding and, if warranted, fully mobilize the command post, said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the west county. Advisory evacuation notices could be issued depending on the river's rise, she said.
Sandbags were available at the Forestville fire station, across from the Monte Rio fire station and at the Guerneville park and ride, Hopkins said.
Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman said he'd be watching river forecasts Wednesday night to get a better sense of what was ahead for the region.
“Thirty-five, 36 feet is no big deal. Thirty-seven, 38, we're closing major roads,” Baxman said. “If we hit 40 to 41, there'll be a lot of water everywhere.”
At 38 feet, a stretch of River Road floods just outside of downtown Guerneville toward Rio Nido. At 40 feet, river water laps at the front of the Monte Rio theater and homes and businesses begin to flood in the area.
Baxman said he had readied a high-water military truck he'll use if needed, with life jackets and throw ropes on board, as well as a boat and other emergency equipment.
“I'm ready,” said the veteran chief, known for decades of flood-era rescues along the Russian River. “Nothing is going to stop me.”
The prolonged storm, encompassing Valentine's Day, is the most powerful so far this year but not close to historic winter deluges. Those include the Valentine's Day flood of 1986 when the river hit 48.9 feet in Guerneville.
In January 2017, during a historically wet winter, a series of storms pummeled the county with days of heavy rainfall and the river reached 38 feet in Guerneville, causing minor flooding.