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Sierra Chaos: I-80 Closed, Avalanche Shuts Down Amtrak

TRUCKEE (CBS SF) -- A winter storm front, fueled by an atmospheric river, has buried the Sierra under several feet of new snow, shattering all-time records, shutting down I-80 and forcing Amtrak to turn back two trains because of an avalanche and rockslide.

Officials at Squaw Valley said they had smashed their all-time record for snowfall in a single month. So far this February, the resort has gotten 300 inches of snow -- 25 feet -- shattering their previous monthly record by over 100 inches and the all-time mark for any single month by 18 inches.

Over the last 48 hours, Squaw/Alpine Meadows has gotten 42 inches of snow, Boreal had received 55 inches and Northstar 36 inches.

A winter storm warning remained in effect for the region until 4 a.m. Thursday with another 3-6 inches expected at the lower elevations and 8-16 inches above 7,000 feet.

The National Weather Service also reported wind gusts up to 114 mph late Tuesday at the summit of Alpine Meadows. Heavy snow and high winds closed a 70-mile stretch of I-80 early Wednesday from Colfax to the California-Nevada line just west of Reno.

Caltrans said the eastbound lanes of the roadway reopened at 9:46 p.m. Wednesday evening.

"A lull in heavier snowfall is expected from late Wednesday morning into Wednesday evening before heavier snow develops again Wednesday night," the weather service said.

With much of the snow high in water content -- so-called Sierra Cement -- the Sierra Avalanche Center warned of a high threat of avalanches and the dangers of large, heavy chunks of snow falling off homes and other structures.

Along I-80 at the Donner Summit, CHP Sgt. Eric Strecker told to facebook to say the issue was that snow plows were actually triggering dozens of small avalanches during their efforts to clear the roadway.

"They (Caltrans) are doing their best to get this (the highway) cleared up, but the snow banks are so high that when they blow it on one side they actually have to blow it all the way over the freeway," Strecker said on facebook. "And they are triggering mini-avalanches."

Meanwhile, the storm created havoc for Amtrak. The transit agency said it was forced to turn two trains -- carrying nearly 300 passengers to and from the Bay Area -- around due to a railroad track closure.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said a westbound train bound for the Bay Area on the California Zephyr route halted Tuesday at Reno and early Wednesday headed back toward Chicago while an eastbound train that left Emeryville stopped at Roseville before turning around.

Magliari said Amtrak put the passengers in Reno up for the night in a hotel and provided charter buses to resume their journey.

The avalanche sent snow onto the tracks owned by Union Pacific at 9:15 a.m. Tuesday at Donner Pass about 10 miles west of Truckee.

Union Pacific spokesman Tim McMahan said crews are still working to clear the tracks. He says there's no estimate on when they will reopen.

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