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Winter storm gentler than expected but still leaves wreckage with the rain

A punishing winter storm that deluged the Central Coast and pounded the North Bay with heavy rain and gusting wind up to 60 mph at the highest elevations toppled trees, knocked out power to several thousand homes and dumped a foot or more of snow on the mountaintops.

Windblown trees also crashed into at least three residences and are blamed for major power outages near Guerneville and in Bodega Bay.

But the first major storm system of the winter moved across Sonoma County with enough haste that the worst of its potential was avoided, leaving the region comparatively unscathed, particularly given worst-case scenarios presented for the county’s fresh wildfire scars.

“So far, so good,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville said around midday Wednesday as intermittent showers took over for the afternoon.

The storm, a cold but moisture-laden atmospheric river, had been forecast as a major test of the recently burned landscape in parts of Central and Northern California, predicted to bring significant rainfall, including up to 6 inches in the North Bay hills.

The strongest part came through by dark, a narrow band that delivered most of its payload between about 9 p.m. Tuesday and 2 a.m. Wednesday, “exactly as predicted by the weather service, almost down to the minute,” Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine said.

While the storm came closer to meeting expectations for predicted rainfall on the Central Coast, totals in Sonoma County proved substantially lower, between about 1½ and 2½ inches during its initial pass.

Though a storm cell that came through the west county Walbridge burn area around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday prompted a brief flash flood warning and carried the potential for debris flows, its duration was limited and was not known to have caused the ground to start moving, Deputy Sonoma County Emergency Management Director Jeff DuVall said.

Turbeville noted it was possible there were consequences in some remote area no one had observed yet.

But as of Wednesday night there had been no reports of unusual geological activity such as occurred in Monterey County, where the atmospheric river stalled overhead Wednesday, drenching the area with 3 to 6 inches of rain and causing numerous mudslides in burned areas along the coast and inland, National Weather Service meteorologist Carolina Walbrun said.

More than two dozen homes there were reported damaged or destroyed, and people and livestock were trapped by the slides.

Assistant Santa Rosa Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal said Sonoma County residents on the margins of recent wildfires should remain aware of the potential for scorched, bare earth to give way.

“By no means are we trying to scare people, but we understand the risks associated with those burn scars, and we’re trying to make sure our community’s prepared and we have our plans in place,” he said.

Continued rain through Friday was forecast to bring another 2 to 3 inches of rain to the county, though spread out over three days rather than condensed over several hours.

Still, the weather service put a flash flood watch in effect for the burn scars left by the Glass, Walbridge and Meyers fires, given continued rain. It’s expected to be followed by cooler temperatures and overnight lows near freezing by Friday morning, according to meteorologist Steve Anderson.

Freezing temperatures already were in evidence atop the mountains near the Geysers bordering Sonoma and neighboring Lake counties, as well as upper elevations of north Mendocino County.

For people like Petaluma dad Eric Wiessler, it provided an opportunity to let his girls, Sidney, 7, and Elise, 5, explore snow for the first time.

“The first thing they did was throw a snowball at me,” said Wiessler, 39.

He said he saw a newspaper photo of a family in the snow Wednesday morning and thought, “Aha! What a good idea! It’s only an hour from here! We’re going!”

They drove up Pine Flat Road figuring “we’d find a light dusting,” and instead found snow about a foot deep. “It was kind of spur of the moment, and we had fun,” he said.

There were others who had not counted on snow, however, and found themselves in trouble as a result, including a northbound trucker who lost traction on a steep, slippery grade of Highway 101 near Leggett in Mendocino County.

The trucker jackknifed late Tuesday, blocking oncoming semis and other motorists as snow began to fall heavily and fast, CHP Officer Rick Fowler said.

Then, to the south, a tree 8 or 9 feet in diameter fell across the highway, contributing to chaos that included more power lines and falling, closing the highway all day Wednesday. “It was just a big winter mess,” Fowler said.

Snowfall similarly stalled vehicles in Lake County late Tuesday, closing Highway 29 for a time between Kelseyville and Lower Lake, the CHP said.

In Sonoma County, meanwhile, emergency road and fire crews were busy cleaning up after the storm, principally clearing trees and some mud from local roadways.

“We get prepared typically the day before, make sure all of our chain saws are fueled up and we’re ready to go,” said Shahn Burke, a Sonoma County roads worker who was with a chipper crew disposing of a large tree across the Bohemian Highway between Monte Rio and Camp Meeker.

Closer to Monte Rio, the highway was blocked off due to a large pool of ruddy brown water about the size of an Olympic swimming pool, which obscured the entire roadway.

Fire Chief Steve Baxman said trees had crashed through the roofs of homes in Monte Rio and in Gueneville, but no one was injured.

In Rohnert Park, news crews finished up some final live shots in front of a mobile home that was damaged overnight when a large tree crushed the rear portion of the home. The Bay Area NBC affiliate reported an 89-year-old was inside, but uninjured, when the tree came down.

Trees also were blamed for power outages that cut power to more than 1,780 households in the Bodega Bay area Tuesday night, some of them still without electricity on Wednesday, PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said.

Another 3,900 customers west of Guerneville lost power late Wednesday afternoon after a large tree branch in Armstrong Woods fell across some power lines. All local customers were expected to have power restored by 9 p.m., Contreras said.

This week’s badly needed rain brings the season total to 7.61 inches in Santa Rosa since Oct. 1, compared to average rainfall by this time of 20.10 inches, the weather service said.

It’s welcome, said Jay Jasperse, chief engineer and director of groundwater management for Sonoma Water. But “we have a big hole that we have to dig out of, and it’s not going to be this one storm or a series of storms that gets us out.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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