Mandatory evacuations as Russian River hits flood stage

A winter storm slamming the western U.S. dumped rain Tuesday in Northern California and raising the threat of floods, while heavy mountain snowfall created a risk of avalanches and whiteout conditions on roads in the Sierra Nevada.

The National Weather Service issued flood warnings and flash flood watches for the San Francisco Bay Area and many parts of the Sacramento area into Thursday morning.

Mandatory evacuation orders have been issued for several areas around the Russian River because the river is expected to go above flood stage amid stormy weather in the Bay Area on Tuesday evening, Sonoma County sheriff's officials said. 

The river is expected to rise above flood stage at 6 p.m. and mandatory evacuation orders have been issued for Asti, Bailhache, Chianti, Guerneville, Guernewood, Guernewood Park, Hacienda, Jenner, Jimtown, Korbel, Lytton, Northwood, Northwood Lodge, Rolands, Sheridan, Duncans Mills, El 
Bonita, Mirabel Heights, Mirabel Park, Monte Rio, Montesano, Summerhome Park, Vacation Beach and Wilson Grove.

One shelter is located at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts at 282 S. High St. in Sebastopol and another was set to open at 5 p.m. at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds Grace Pavilion at 1350 Bennett Valley Road in Santa Rosa. 

A free shuttle can take people to the shelters from the Guerneville Veterans War Memorial at 16320 Church St. in Guerneville.

"This is the time to locate your emergency kits and review your evacuation plans with your family," said David Rabbitt, chair of the county Board of Supervisors.

In neighboring Napa County, the Napa River in San Helena could also overflow. 

In the Sierra Nevada along the California-Nevada line, forecasters warned of possible whiteout conditions from blowing snow in the high passes. The mountains could see up to 8 feet (2.44 meters) of snow at higher elevations and winds gusting to 140 mph (225 kph) over ridgetops.

"Heavy snow and gale force winds will create dangerous avalanche conditions" into Thursday morning for the Lake Tahoe area, the National Weather Service warned.

Several mountain highways, including Interstate 80 at Donner Summit, were repeatedly closed for short periods Monday because of spinouts or avalanche concerns.

The storm already has barreled through other parts of the West, toppling trucks and trees, triggering power outages and closing roads and schools from Oregon to Montana.

Snow forced flight cancellations at the Portland airport, and prompted a blizzard warning for parts of Montana, where Butte public schools canceled classes Tuesday for the first time in at least 20 years.

Buses were getting stuck, and a superintendent told The Montana Standard that the district's snowplows haven't been able to keep up.

A power outage struck several thousand people in the Reno-Sparks area of Nevada.

The storm is the latest in a string that has dumped record levels of snow and rain this winter.

The culprit is an atmospheric river of moisture coming from north of Hawaii. The phenomenon has become frequent enough that scientists in California are introducing a 1-through-5 scale of intensity for atmospheric rivers, similar to those used to gauge hurricanes.