Still more snow piled up Sunday in the Sierra Nevada after storms across the West dumped up to 11 feet — as well as causing three deaths, power outages to hundreds of thousands and setbacks in searches for nine people missing in the mountains.
Winter storm warnings remained in effect for some mountainous areas and the main highway through the Sierra Nevada was closed Saturday night. Residents were warned of possible mudslides in parts of rain-soaked Southern California where slopes had been denuded by the fall's wildfires.
Hundreds of thousands of customers have been blacked out in three states and many of them in California could remain in the dark for days because storms ripped down nearly 500 miles of power lines, utility officials said Sunday.
Six snowmobilers and two skiers were reported missing in heavy snow in the mountains of southern Colorado, and one hiker was missing in snow-covered mountains in Southern California.
Rescuers in Colorado resumed a search Sunday for six snowmobilers last seen Friday, before the storm dumped 3 to 4 feet of snow near Cumbres Pass, close to the New Mexico line.
The Denver Post said the snowmobilers were two couples from Farmington, N.M., and their two children, ages 14 and 13.
Donna Oney of the Colorado State Patrol said 11 search and rescue team members and three deputies were looking for the snowmobilers.
Two skiers were missing 40 miles away in the Wolf Creek ski area, Oney said. Wolf Creek had reported 39 inches of snow overnight.
In the mountains east of Los Angeles, authorities searched Sunday for a 62-year-old man who went hiking Friday just before a storm there began, San Bernardino County sheriff’s spokeswoman Arden Wiltshire said. The man used his cell phone Friday to report he had lost his sense of direction in fog, but searchers last had cell phone contact with him early Saturday.
The area was hit with snow later that day, but the man was believed to be dressed warmly, knows the area well and has survivalist training from serving in the military, Wiltshire said.
Town hit by 'wall of water'
In Fernley, Nev., hundreds of homes sat in as much as 8 feet of water Sunday following a canal rupture as freezing weather spread sheets of ice over yards and streets, hindering efforts to get the water to drain away.
As many as 400 homes were damaged when the canal’s bank gave way following heavy rainfall produced by the West Coast storm system that had piled snow as much as 11 feet deep in the Sierra Nevada.
No injuries were reported in the town about 30 miles east of Reno, after a section of the Truckee Canal levee up to 150 feet long broke soon after 4 a.m. Saturday.
As many as 3,500 people were temporarily stranded and an estimated 1,500 were displaced from their homes, Lyon County Fire Chief Scott Huntley said Saturday night. About 25 people remained at a shelter set up at a high school after a peak of about 150 earlier in the day.
Huntley, one of the first on the scene, described the flood as a "wall of water about 2 feet high going down Farm District Road."
The irrigation canal failure at Fernley released a wave of frigid water into the town early Saturday.
“In 10 minutes the entire back yard was completely flooded. It was just nothing but water,” said Kristin Watson, whose home backs up to part of the canal. “We just sort of panicked because we knew we had to get out of there real quick.”
The canal was repaired by late in the day, but as much as a square mile of the town was still under water at least 2 feet deep Sunday as ice impeded drainage.
“Our hope is over the next 24 hours to get the water out,” Fernley Mayor Todd Cutler said at a briefing Sunday morning. “But we still have up to 8 feet of water in some areas. We need to keep the storm drains unclogged to keep the water moving to a wetland. We also may need to do some pumping in some areas.”
Huntley said officials knew of 18 cases of people rescued from atop homes or cars as fire department and private boats plus four helicopters were pressed into action Saturday, but he believes there were many more.
“The sheer number of rescues was amazing,” Huntley said Sunday.
Eric Cornett fled from his home with his wife and three children.
"We saw water coming in the back door and tried to grab as much stuff as possible to save it. The water was rising very quickly and it was scary," he said.
Two helicopters aided boat crews in rescuing at least 18 people from driveways and roofs.
Rodents behind levee break?
One possible factor that officials have mentioned was rodents burrowing holes in the earthen bank, which also was involved in a smaller collapse that flooded about 60 Fernley homes in December 1996.
But Ernie Schank, president of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District, said Sunday that a geologist had turned up no evidence of burrowing animals near the site of the break. The cause may never be known, he said.
“It’ll be hard to pinpoint the cause because the evidence is washed away,” said Schank, whose agency operates the 31-mile-long earthen canal.
Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons declared the county an emergency area and the Federal Emergency Management Agency planned to survey the damage Monday.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared emergencies in three counties hit hard by the storms, and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski declared a state of emergency for one county that had severe wind damage.
At least 5 feet of snow had fallen on ski areas in the rugged Sierra Nevada by early Sunday, with 9 feet possible at some higher elevations, the National Weather Service said.
The Kirkwood ski resort near Lake Tahoe reported about 11 feet of snow had fallen since the storm system moved inland from the Pacific last week.
3 more feet of snow by Tuesday?
As much as 3 feet more snow could hit higher elevations of the Sierras by Tuesday evening, the National Weather Service said. Parts of Northern California will get a reprieve from the rain and snow on Monday, but in the mountains, “there’s a chance of snow and snow showers all the way through Thursday,” said weather service meteorologist Angus Barkhuff.
Blizzard conditions in the mountains during the night prompted authorities to again close nearly 100 miles of Interstate 80 from about 30 miles east of Sacramento to just over the Nevada state line, but the California Department of Transportation's Web site later said it was open to vehicles with chains or with a combination of 4-wheel-drive and snow tires.
I-80 also was closed early Saturday because of the weather, and Saturday afternoon the weather was blamed for a 17-car pileup that closed westbound lanes just east of the Reno-Sparks area.
More than 234,000 homes and businesses in Northern California were still without power Sunday, and Pacific Gas and Electric said the storm had downed nearly 500 miles of power lines and more than 500 utility poles. Repair crews in the snow-covered Sierra foothills will have to use snowshoes, all-terrain vehicles and helicopters, utility officials said.
Fewer than 5,000 customers were still blacked out in the Los Angeles area. The storm also caused blackouts in parts of Oregon and Washington.
In all, more than 2 million customers from the northern town of Eureka to Los Angeles had lost power since early Friday.
Seven people were hospitalized at Willows, Calif., near Chico, after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning from a propane lantern they used indoors because of the blackout, Glenn County officials said.
The storm was blamed for two deaths in California, including a woman whose pickup truck was swept into a flood channel east of Los Angeles, and one death in Oregon, police said.