Sierra gets most snow since 1916

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RENO - A moisture-laden winter storm piled snow deeper across the Sierra Nevada, stranding an Amtrak train, knocking out the Reno airport and shutting down major highways across the mountains.

The storm was the latest in a string of powerful systems that has dumped as much as 19 feet of snow in the Sierra and 61Ú2 feet in the Reno area since Dec. 28.

Forecasters called the series of storms the snowiest in the Reno-Lake Tahoe area since 1916.

"I've lived here for almost 40 years and I've never seen anything like it," Peter Walenta, 69, of Stateline, said Sunday. "This baby just seems to be stretching on forever. Right now I'm looking out the window and it's dumping."

Forecasters extended a winter storm warning into Tuesday across the Sierra and parts of Northern Nevada, where as much as 2 more feet of snow was expected.

The latest storm had left up to 61Ú2 feet of snow in the Sierra and 21Ú2 feet in the Reno area.

"The snowbanks along Interstate 80 are about 8 to 10 feet high. It's like you're going through a maze," said Jane Dulaney, spokeswoman for the Rainbow Lodge west of Donner Summit.

A lull in the storm allowed I-80 over Donner Summit and U.S. 50 over Echo Summit to reopen Sunday after the highways were closed off and on for more than a day. Chains or snow tires were required on most highways in the Sierra.

About 220 Amtrak passengers reached Sacramento on Sunday morning after spending the night stuck in their train in deep snow west of Donner Summit, spokesman Marc Magliari said.

One car of the California Zephyr, eastbound from Oakland, Calif., to Chicago, derailed in the snow Saturday evening. No one was hurt. Amtrak officials moved the passengers to other cars and the train reversed course and returned to Sacramento about 6 a.m.

Because of the derailment, a westbound Zephyr had to stop in Reno and its roughly 140 passengers completed their trip to California by bus.

"It's unfortunately the nature of mountain railroading that you can get delayed by a severe storm," Magliari said.

Reno-Tahoe International Airport was closed for 12 hours overnight for the second time in a week, and only the third time in 40 years, because plows could not keep up with the heavy snowfall, spokeswoman Trish Tucker said.

The storm caused dozens of flight cancellations and delays.

"It's nice to know that there are places with more snow than the Dakotas," Wendy Wollmuth said while waiting for a flight to her home in Moffit, N.D. "We're a bit spooked about being here with all this snow."

About 25 people, including some who spent six hours stuck in deep snow, were rescued Sunday morning along the Eastern Sierra.

National Guard members used Humvees to pick up the stranded motorists on U.S. 395 in Washoe Valley about 20 miles south of Reno, Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Jeff Bowers said.

Some motorists became stuck in drifting snow, while others drove off the roadway because of near-zero visibility. No injuries were reported.

Three NHP patrol cars and two tow trucks also became stuck in snow while trying to assist motorists. A state plow also went off the roadway.

"We're talking real ugly conditions. In 12 years with the NHP I've never seen conditions that bad," Bowers said. "That would have been as scary as it gets to be out there alone in those conditions."

Church services and weekend high school sporting events in the Reno area were canceled. Reservations at the Arch of Reno wedding chapel were down 50 percent from a normal weekend, spokeswoman Kathy Allen said.

"It's killing us ... The weekend is the majority of our business," Allen told a Reno newspaper.

When the latest storm hit, the Reno region had still been digging out from a Dec. 30 storm that dumped as much as 4 feet of snow on the city.

"You'd have to go back to 1916 to top this sequence of storms," National Weather Service forecaster Tom Cylke said Sunday of the snow accumulation in Reno.

Sierra ski resort operators rejoiced over the snowfall, saying it would set them up for a busy Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

Heavenly ski resort on Tahoe's south shore already has received 10 feet of snow in January, which exceeds the monthly average of about 8 feet, spokeswoman Molly Cuffe said.

Since Dec. 28, the resort has reported as much as 19 feet of snow.

"These back-to-back storms have created some of the best skiing conditions locals have ever seen. It's unbelievable how much snow has fallen in such a short period," Cuffe said.

But the storm posed a challenge to ambulance and fire crews at Tahoe, where plows were being sent out with emergency vehicles to clear clogged roads.

Washoe County, Reno and Sparks governments declared a state of emergency, and continued a round-the-clock effort to clear main roads.

Heavy snow was blamed for the collapse of a Salvation Army warehouse roof Sunday in Reno. No injuries were reported.

The U.S. Forest Service issued an avalanche advisory for the central Sierra backcountry between Yuba and Sonora passes.


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