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Northern California winter storm could be biggest to slam region in decade

Severe weather coast-to-coast

SAN FRANCISCO -- Stranded motorists were pulled from cars stuck on flooded Northern California roads as thunderstorms arrived Sunday as part of a massive winter storm that could be the biggest to slam the region in more than a decade. The massive storm is expected to bring massive amounts of rainfall and tropical storm-force winds from the coast inland to Nevada.

The extent of injuries from the storm is not yet clear, but officials said at least one woman was killed by a falling tree amid high winds.

CBS San Francisco reports the woman was killed by the falling tree while walking on a San Ramon golf course on Saturday. The victim’s identity has not yet been released.

Crews in California cleared trees and debris following mudslides caused by steady rain accompanying the system that could dump 15 inches in foothill areas as it gained strength throughout the day. 

Reno officials reported the city has already been experiencing mass flooding and road closures, reports CBS Reno affiliate KTVN.

More than 1,000 homes have been evacuated in Reno.

Emergency officials said residents voluntarily evacuated a total of 1,300 homes in a south Reno neighborhood Sunday as the Truckee River began to leave its banks and drainage ditches started to overflow south of Interstate 80.

Many area roads have been closed, but no injuries have been reported.

Several feet of snow was expected at higher elevations in the Sierra Nevada, as well as blistering winds. CBS Sacramento reports wind speeds of 150 mph were recorded in the Sierras.

Bob Purcell stood outside his home in San Francisco’s Laurel Heights home Sunday and just shook his head.

Several feet away was Purcell’s gray sedan, crushed under the weight of a massive tree that came tumbling down during Sunday’s blustery winter storm, CBS San Francisco reported

“I heard a large crack and then someone outside yelled out an expletive,” he said. “I ran outside and it was my car.”

Authorities reported rescues in Marin and Sonoma counties, including an operation along U.S. 101 where several people were plucked from submerged vehicles. No injuries were reported. 

A “closed” sign stands at the entrance of a normally busy ice rink at the Half Dome Village of Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Saturday, Jan 7, 2016.  GARY KAZANJIAN, AP

Officials urged residents to avoid driving through standing water and to stay off rural roads, where rescues could be difficult.

All roads leading to Yosemite National Park’s valley floor remained closed amid fears that the Merced River could overflow its banks and cause major flooding.

“It’s kind of surreal how empty the park is. There’s nobody here,” said Gary Kazanjian, a freelance photographer who spent the night in Yosemite and drove out Sunday as part of a caravan of stragglers. 

CBS San Francisco reports that the storm also has led to an awesome display of Mother Nature’s power as the park’s signature falls roared to life.

The torrential rains had park officials casting a wary eye on the rising waters of the Merced River.

The National Weather Service predicted the river would crest at the Pohono Bridge inside the park at least 15.6 feet by Sunday night — well over the flood stage of 10 feet.

Authorities were watching rising water levels of several Northern California rivers, including the Cosumnes, Truckee, American and Russian.

Forecasters also warned of strong winds. A woman was killed Saturday by a falling tree on a San Francisco Bay Area golf course. Firefighters on Sunday rescued a man pinned under a toppled tree in Golden Gate Park. The homeless man had minor injuries and was taken to a hospital to be checked. 

Snow is cleared from the Donner Pass rest area at Donner Pass summit during a winter storm, near Truckee, California, U.S. January 7, 2017. REUTERS

The storm surge stretching all the way from Hawaii -- called an atmospheric river -- comes as California enters its sixth year of drought. Each drop of rain is welcomed, but officials said several more big storms are needed to replenish depleted groundwater supplies.

The strong wet season began in October with more rain falling than in three decades, mostly in Northern California. Los Angeles, which will likely get the brunt of the latest system early Monday, is experiencing its wettest winter in six years, forecasters said.

The storm’s relatively mild temperatures will drive up the snowline to above 9,000 feet throughout the Sierra Nevada, causing runoff in the lower elevations, said Zach Tolby, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno, Nevada. 

Flooding could rival the winter of 2005-06 that sent 5 feet of water into an industrial area in Sparks, Nevada. Crews worked to secure storage drums filled with hazardous materials to stop them from floating away as they have in past floods.

Another storm is forecast for Tuesday and with the ground already saturated, rain won’t seep into the soil quickly enough and extra runoff could end up in already swollen rivers and creeks, officials said.

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