Severe blizzard warning for Mammoth, Tahoe: 'Not the time to gamble with ... your family's lives'

In this photo provided by Mammoth Lakes Tourism, a roadway is covered with snow in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., Monday, Feb. 19, 2024. Much of saturated California faced the threat of flooding Tuesday with winter storms blowing through, but so far the state has escaped the severity of damage from mudslides, wind and rain spawned by an atmospheric river only weeks ago. (Jacob Myhre/Mammoth Lakes Tourism via AP)
A roadway is covered with snow in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., on Feb. 19. (Jacob Myhre / Mammoth Lakes Tourism via AP)

A rare blizzard warning was issued for the Sierra Nevada, including ski resorts at Mammoth Mountain and around Lake Tahoe, as officials urged people to avoid travel during treacherous weather Thursday through Sunday.

Up to 12 feet of snow could fall, the latest forecasts say. The blizzard warning was in effect from Lassen Volcanic National Park in Shasta County to Kings Canyon National Park in Fresno County.

Friday night to Saturday morning is expected to bring the most extreme conditions of severe snowfall and strong winds, with snow falling at a rate of 3 to 5 inches per hour. Wind gusts on the ridge of California's mightiest mountain range are expected to "easily exceed" 100 mph, and authorities urged residents to be prepared for power outages and falling trees.

"There are only so many ways that we can say it will be treacherous to be traveling on the roads or even exiting your home during this time frame," the National Weather Service office in Reno said. "Whiteout conditions are very disorienting, so this is not the time to gamble with you or your family's lives, especially over a planned weekend ski vacation."

Total snowfall could hit 5 to 10 feet at elevations 5,000 feet above sea level, and certain areas at the highest peaks could get 12 feet of snow or more, the National Weather Service office in Sacramento said. There could be 2 to 5 feet of snowfall in the towns around Lake Tahoe.

In Mono County, where Mammoth Mountain is located, there could be 3 to 6 feet of snow along the Sierra crest and 1 to 3 feet in the communities along Highway 395, the main route between Mammoth and Southern California. Winds could gust there as high as 75 mph in the lower elevations, and above 110 mph over the ridges.

"Do not take this storm lightly. It is shaping up to be the strongest storm of the winter season. Prepare now," the weather service office in Reno said. "If you must travel in the Sierra during this prolonged storm, have a winter kit and plenty of supplies. Nothing like an unsafe, impromptu camping trip in your car on Donner Pass."

Forecasters warned that flights will probably be delayed or canceled, motorists would be ordered to put chains on tires, and travelers could get disoriented from whiteout conditions.

Along the two main routes many visitors from the San Francisco Bay Area take to the Lake Tahoe area, the highest point of Interstate 80 — Donner Pass, at an elevation of about 7,000 feet — could get 7 to 8 feet of snow. The tallest point of Highway 50 — Echo Summit — could get 6 to 8 feet of snow.

In western Nevada, there's a 60% to 70% chance that Reno and Carson City could get at least 6 inches of snow by Sunday morning.

Officials also warned about traveling on any road above 1,000 feet in northwest California. The National Weather Service office in Eureka warned about heavy snowfall down to elevations of as low as 500 feet, and warned of a "small hail threat" along the coast.

The highest point of Interstate 5 between Redding and the Oregon border — a spot just north of the city of Mount Shasta — could get 11 to 19 inches of snow.

Closer to Southern California, there's a 20% to 30% chance of up to 1 inch of snow along Interstate 5 over the Tejon Pass, commonly referred to as the Grapevine, which connects L.A. County to the Central Valley.

And there's also a 20% to 30% chance of 1 to 2 inches of snow along Highway 58 over the Tehachapi Pass, the key route between Bakersfield and the Mojave Desert.

The blizzard warning extended to areas of Yosemite National Park outside Yosemite Valley between Thursday afternoon and Sunday morning. Yosemite Valley — the most popular section of the national park — faces a winter storm warning Saturday morning through Sunday morning. There could be blowing snow in Yosemite Valley on Saturday and heavy snow accumulations.

It's not clear when the Sierra storm will be over. The worst snowfall and winds may taper by Sunday, forecasters said, but scattered snow showers could still happen.

"Monday appears to be the best setup for post-storm cleanup and travel for now, but that doesn't appear to be it in terms of the storm potential," the weather service office in Reno said, with the potential for one or two more storms next week.

In Los Angeles and Ventura counties, light to moderate rain was expected to start either Thursday night or Friday, persisting through at least Saturday, the National Weather Service office in Oxnard said. The storm could bring one-quarter to 1 inch of rain along the coast and in the valleys, with 1 to 2 inches in the foothills and mountains.

Snow levels in L.A. County could fall as low as 3,500 feet above sea level on Saturday night into Sunday. In Wrightwood, 4 to 6 inches of snow could fall.

In Orange and San Diego counties, as well as western Riverside and southwestern San Bernardino counties, there could be one-tenth to one-quarter of an inch of rain near the coast, and one-quarter to half an inch in the valleys.

The Bay Area was expected to see rain and gusty weather return as early as Thursday and continue through Saturday, with snow levels falling to 2,000 feet above sea level. A few inches of snow could fall on peaks such as Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose, Mt. St. Helena in wine country and the highest peaks of the Santa Lucia Range above Big Sur in Monterey County.

The Sacramento Valley is expected to see strong winds, with gusts of 35 to 50 mph possible from Marysville in Yuba County northward, the weather service office in Sacramento said.

Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.