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Intensifying atmospheric river eyeing snowbound regions of California, raising flooding fears

Lake Arrowhead, Calif. — After a blizzard swept through Southern California mountains, 79-year-old Alan Zagorsky found himself shut inside his home with snow blocking the door and stairways leading out.

He and his wife had enough food to get through the 10 days until volunteers finally arrived Wednesday to help clear roughly 10 feet of snow piled up outside their house in Lake Arrowhead. They’d been running low on blood pressure medication, but teams had come a day earlier to resupply them in the upscale mountain community where Zagorsky has lived for more than two decades.

“We’ve been through many a snowstorm but nothing of this amount, that’s for sure,” he said, while a crew shoveled his driveway in the mountains east of Los Angeles. “Right now, they’re trying to find a place they can put this stuff.”

In a once-a-generation weather event, staggering amounts of snow fell in the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountain ranges in late February, where thousands of people live in wooded enclaves. The areas are popular destinations for hikers and skiers who arrive by twisting, steep highways that have been frequently closed because of icy conditions.

The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department said, “We continue to respond to calls for service for our mountain residents. To date, we have identified 12 individuals who were deceased. So far, we can only confirm one, a traffic accident, as weather related.”

California Snow The Stranded
Rob Pagarian, at left, and fellow volunteers with the disaster response group Team Rubicon dig a resident’s vehicle out of the snow on March 8, 2023, in Lake Arrowhead, Calif.

Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Snow piled high above many homes’ first-floor windows and residents who could get out trekked on foot to buy groceries from stores with near-empty shelves or picked up boxes of donated food at a distribution center.

Roofs collapsed, cars were buried and roads were blocked. The power went out in many communities and authorities reported possible gas leaks and storm-related fires. Gov. Gavin Newsom declared emergencies in 13 of California’s 58 counties beginning March 1, including in San Bernardino County.

On Wednesday, he added 21 more, saying in a news release that the state “is working around the clock with local partners to deploy life-saving equipment and first responders to communities across California.”

And as the state continued to dig out from the previous storms, another one was on the way. Forecasters said an atmospheric river taking aim at northern and central California was expected to arrive Thursday.

California Snow The Stranded
Food is distributed out of a parking lot after a series of storms, on March 8, 2023, in Crestline, Calif.

Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

The San Bernardino Mountain communities were likely to be spared another major snowfall. But the warm storm was raising concern about a rapid snowmelt of portions of the state’s substantial snowpack.

Authorities said creeks, streams and rivers could rise quickly, raising the threat of flooding.

Flood watches were posted for areas across northern and central California for Thursday, the Reuters news agency reported.

And the atmospheric river was gaining strength, CBS News Bay area reported.

“Like a truly unwanted guest, an intensifying sub-tropical atmospheric river was now expected to arrive early, crashing into Northern California on Thursday afternoon,” the station said, adding it had been upgraded from a Category 3 to a Cat 4 out of five.

On Wednesday, dozens of volunteers with the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Team Rubicon fanned out across the mountain communities to clear buried properties. A team of 10 used shovels and snow blowers to clean walkways and driveways belonging to Zagorsky and his neighbors, who’d been confined to their homes for more than a week.

The Los Angeles Times reported that helicopters were air-dropping hay in a “bid to save thousands of California cattle starving in the snow.”

FILE PHOTO: Massive snow amounts trap Californians
Ice covers communication towers as massive amounts of snow trap residents of mountain towns in San Bernadino County, Calif. in March 2023.

DAVID SWANSON / REUTERS

In Lake Arrowhead, home to 9,700 people and at an elevation of 5,175 feet, many roads were plowed Tuesday for the first time in 10 days, and some residents grumbled about the slow response. San Bernardino County officials estimated more than 90% of county roads were plowed as of Tuesday night.

About 8 miles to the west, along a winding two-lane road, volunteers were also digging out homes in Crestline, a working class mountain community of 9,300 residents.

Don Black watched as a team wielding shovels cleared his neighbor’s property. He marveled at the massive 12-foot snow berms left behind by plows along the roads.

“This is the worst storm I’ve seen in 34 winters,” Black said, standing near a mound of snow that completely covered his pickup truck.

A team of state firefighters shoveled off the roof of the town library. A line of residents walked along freshly plowed roads to pick up boxes of food at a distribution center.

Nearby, Big Bear City received more than 6.6 feet  of snow in a seven-day period, the most since those records have been tracked, said meteorologist Alex Tardy, with the National Weather Service in San Diego.