Toppled trees and road closures as Sonoma County weathers latest winter storm

Santa Rosa was closing in on 40 inches of rain by Tuesday evening, putting the region in striking distance of some of its wettest rain years.|

It wasn’t an atmospheric river and it didn’t come down like recent deluges, but the latest storm to hit Sonoma County put the region closer to some of its wettest rain years by the end of Tuesday.

It also caused a fair share of havoc, with saturated ground and gusty winds contributing to downed trees and rock slides across the region.

(Map: Rain forecast in the North Bay)

Helena Zappelli had what may have been the closest call.

A large cypress toppled 10 feet from her Humboldt Street home in Santa Rosa’s Junior College neighborhood and crushed her Kia Soul.

“I feel damn lucky because it was raining and I go smoke in my car, and I was just about to do that,” she said.

On Monte Verde Drive in east Santa Rosa, several large branches fell from what appeared to be a large oak and crushed a Ford Edge SUV.

“One of my employees was taking out the recycling and it fell and scared the mess out of her,” said Andrea Quintana, administrator of a nearby long term care facility.

The branches, which crushed the car of another employee of the facility, were still blocking the road at 4:30 p.m., three hours after it had came down.

Elsewhere, a tree and power lines fell and “completely blocked St. Helena Road,” said Santa Rosa Fire Marshall, Paul Lowenthal. The road remained blocked in the late afternoon.

A rock slide also partially blocked Calistoga Road just east of St Helena Road, Lowenthal said.

Around noon Tuesday, a rock slide occurred on Moscow Road, Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman said. It covered about 20 to 30 yards of road but was quickly cleaned up, he said.

There were no reports of injuries throughout the day.

The Russian River was expected to rise by more than four feet and crest at 18.6 feet by midafternoon Wednesday in Guerneville. That would still be 10 feet below monitor level, according to California-Nevada River Center forecasts.

By 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, 0.7 inches of rain had fallen on Santa Rosa over the past 24 hours, and the same at Petaluma Municipal Airport, according to the National Weather Service.

By contrast, in the same 24-hour period, 1.23 inches fell on Venado, a remote community west of Healdsburg and typically one of the rainiest places in the North Bay.

So far this rain season, since Oct. 1, a whopping 73.64 inches have fallen on Venado, half of it in the giant series of atmospheric river storms between Dec. 26 to Jan. 17.

In Santa Rosa, the total over the same period was 39.90 inches by late Tuesday, already 10 inches over the historical average over records stretching back to 1902, according to the weather service.

Looking forward, “The forecast has remained pretty stable,” said Miles Bliss, a weather service meteorologist. “The low pressure (storm) is just going to park itself over the Bay Area, with rain remaining throughout the evening and overnight. We won’t really see it let up until Wednesday morning.”

Sonoma County is now in striking distance of some of its wettest rain years.

The top mark, 55.68 inches in Santa Rosa, came in the destructive winter of 1982-83, followed by 1940-1941, at 51.78 inches, according to the weather service.

The marks for more recent wet winters are in closer proximity: 46.54 inches in Santa Rosa in 2018-19, and 47.29 inches in 1994-95.

Since Jan. 1, the National Weather Service recorded 26.87 inches of precipitation at its official rain gauge at Charles M. Schulz—Sonoma County Airport.

The calendar-year record for Santa Rosa is 52.66 inches in 1940.

Although another storm is on the way next week, extended dry periods generally begin in April.

“I’m not familiar with any records that could be broken as far as water amounts go,” Bliss said. “It’s been a good water year so far, but not record (setting).”

Nor is it the wettest annual first quarter of the past five years, according to National Weather Service data.

Harder hit was 2019 when 32.79 inches of rain was recorded at the airport during the first three months of that year. Just two years earlier, in 2017, 37 inches of rain was recorded from January through March.

Tuesday’s storm came with some blustery winds, with gusts reaching about 20 mph in Santa Rosa, which Bliss said was a bigger issue but also hardly out of the ordinary.

The storm on tap for early next week, Bliss said, is expected to be “reminiscent” of Tuesday.

Neither is classified as an atmospheric river, the type of heavy, moisture-laden system that landed repeated blows on the North Coast and much of California earlier this year.

Atmospheric rivers result from moisture forming above warmer, tropical regions. The recent ones may have originated as far away as Guam.

They can grow to as large as 375 miles wide and stretch up to 1,000 miles long, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Winds push them through the atmosphere, and the moisture they carry turns into rain or snow once they are above land.

Several local deaths were linked to those heavy storms in January. Among them was a toddler who died after a tree fell on his Occidental home.

The storms also undermined local roads and toppled thousands of trees in saturated soils.

Still, the wet winter has done much to diminish drought conditions in Northern California. All of the North Coast, including Sonoma and Mendocino counties, is now out of the severe or moderate categories, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

U.S. Drought Monitor map for California as of March 16, 2023. Areas of bright yellow are classified as abnormally dry. Light orange means moderate drought, and bright orange means severe drought. (U.S. Drought Monitor)
U.S. Drought Monitor map for California as of March 16, 2023. Areas of bright yellow are classified as abnormally dry. Light orange means moderate drought, and bright orange means severe drought. (U.S. Drought Monitor)

Water levels in the region’s two main reservoirs have rebounded sharply amid heavy runoff, spurring dam managers to make the first flood-control releases in years.

Both Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino were at or just over their capacity for this time of year on Tuesday, a remarkable turnaround after reaching historic lows within the past year.

“We really like the fact that we have enough water to get us through this next year and we’re better prepared for the next drought,” said Ann DuBay, communications manager for Sonoma Water, the region’s main water supplier.

She added that officials are eagerly anticipating measuring groundwater levels in April and May to see the degree to which aquifers have been recharged by the storms.

“We really don’t have any numbers yet so it’s too early to know,” she said, “but we are very hopeful that we will see levels rise because of all this rain.”

The fuller the aquifer, the more supply there is for rural residents, farmers and ranchers, DuBay noted, reducing the need for many to truck in water during the driest months.

Groundwater also acts as bank so that when the Russian River is low the agency can supplement its supply to serve 600,000 North Bay residents.

Pete Opatz, a longtime grape growing expert who just retired from his viticulture consulting firm, Wine Dirt, said the latest rains are not harming vineyards.

“Because the vines are just coming out of dormancy now, there’s little to no impact, there’s no impact of rot or any molds,” Opatz said. “We’ve been very blessed. We’ve had very saturated soils and then they dry out and let some oxygen in.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 707-387-2960 or On Twitter @jeremyhay.

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at On Twitter @colin_atagi.

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