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Storm knocks out power to thousands, brings snow to North Bay peaks

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Sonoma County got an early taste of winter Tuesday as the season’s first storm arrived with wind, rain, cold weather, storm-triggered power outages and a dusting of snow on the highest peaks.

But the prospect of flash flooding, with debris flows and rock slides in areas scorched by the recent Kincade fire, did not pan out.

Michael Gossman, director of the county’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, said Tuesday night he had received no reports of weather-related problems.

Most of Lake County was included in a widespread winter storm warning with heavy snow, high winds and hazardous travel conditions through Thursday.

Rainfall totals from Tuesday to Thursday are expected to amount to as much as 1.5 inches in Santa Rosa and up to 2  inches along the Sonoma Coast and mountains, the National Weather Service said.

The lens of the wildfire camera atop Mount St. Helena was speckled with snowflakes Tuesday, but the weather service expected only scant snow in the mountains and none in the county’s densely populated communities.

In Sonoma County, concern remained that rain — as welcome as it is to tamp down fire danger — will ultimately saturate the soil and cause runoff that carries ash left in the wake of the 120-square-mile wildfire into creeks and the Russian River, the source of water for 600,000  Sonoma and Marin County residents.

It takes more than one damp week to banish fire season, Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said.

“If we get winter weather for the next two weeks, our fire conditions should be diminished,” he said.

Margo Warnecke Merck, a partner and ranch manager at her family’s Alexander Valley vineyard, was delighted to see straw wattles placed Tuesday around two rental homes on the 265-acre ranch incinerated by the fire.

“I’m feeling very confident it will help,” Merck said. “I think we’ll be in good shape.”

One of the houses is 50  feet from the river, and Merck, a river advocate, hopes the wattles will prevent ash and sediment from running off her land and into the water.

Don McEnhill, executive director of the Healdsburg-based Russian Riverkeeper, handled the work at Merck’s ranch as one of three nonprofits hired by the county to address erosion problems at 218  properties in the Kincade fire zone.

The ranch on a bend in the river is “probably the highest-risk site on the list,” McEnhill said. “It’s not clear what will happen next.”

Private property owners are responsible for preventing harm to the environment from erosion, a debris flow or anything that pollutes a waterway, Gossman said.

But given the scope of damage from the Kincade fire, which destroyed 374 buildings, including 174  homes, the county allocated $300,000 to pay the three nonprofits for their work.

It seemed fitting to handle the chore at no cost to landowners who lost property because they have so many other concerns and the rain came so soon after the fire, Gossman said.

It’s also a public benefit, since hundreds of thousands of people depend on the health of the Russian River watershed, he said.

John Mack, natural resource manager for Permit Sonoma, said the nonprofits retained by the county will check all 218  properties and determine which ones require some work to prevent harmful erosion.

“I think we have some time over the next few weeks to get things in place,” he said, adding his hope there are no heavy rains until Christmas.

At Pepperwood Preserve, the 3,200-acre conservation science site in the Mayacamas Mountains northeast of Santa Rosa, there was no storm runoff Tuesday, preserve manager Michael Gillogly said.

Pepperwood is also in a race against time to smooth out 15 miles of dozer tracks left by Cal Fire’s successful battle with the Kincade blaze the night of Oct. 27. The property’s role in stemming the wildfire is tempered by concern the raw dozer tracks will channel water into creeks that flow into the Russian River.

Gillogly said it typically takes 2 to 3 inches of rain to saturate parched soil and produce surface runoff. But as a precaution, he said, they have placed straw bales at strategic places where erosion might start.

Santa Rosa had received less than ½-inch of rain by 4 p.m. Tuesday.

Vanessa Vann, whose family lost their home on Chalk Hill Road near Windsor in the Kincade fire, said her mother bought hay to spread around the property to help limit runoff and any more erosion. Still, she worried that some trees might fall onto some of the structures on the property during the storm.

“It’s been a whirlwind of a month,” Vann said. “(My) life has completely changed in such a short amount of time, and now to think about one more aspect of Mother Nature and what more damage it can do to our already damaged property is kind of terrifying.”

At least 6,400 homes and businesses in Sonoma County lost power starting Tuesday afternoon because of the storm, PG&E spokesman J.D. Guidi said. Most of the customers who were affected by the outages were in Santa Rosa — including 4,490  customers who lost power beginning at 4:10 p.m. PG&E estimated that 2,800 of those customers would have their power restored by midnight Tuesday, Guidi said, though he didn’t know when the remaining customers would again have electricity.

After Santa Rosa, Bodega Bay had the next most PG&E customers affected in the county, with 1,560 customers without power. As of 9:20 p.m. Tuesday, all of those customers still were in the dark.

Sonoma County authorities received many calls Tuesday night about trees falling into power lines, a RedCom dispatcher said. Thousands of homes and businesses countywide lost power starting Tuesday afternoon in outages a PG&E spokeswoman said were all caused by the “very strong” storm.

Scattered showers and possible thunderstorms are forecast Wednesday across the North Bay and some rain also could fall Thursday, the National Weather Service said.

Temperatures are expected to dip into the 20s and low 30s in the North Bay valleys by Thursday or Friday morning, and high temperatures are expected to be in the low 50s through Saturday.

Staff Writer Chantelle Lee contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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