12 feet of snow, 190 mph wind gust as 'life-threatening' blizzard pounds California

Hundreds of miles of California highways were shut down Sunday as a powerful blizzard pounded parts of the Golden State and Mountain West dumping heavy snow and bringing howling winds with gusts that hit 190 mph − well above the 157 mph threshold for a Category 5 hurricane.

National Weather Service meteorologist William Churchill warned of “life-threatening concern” for residents near Lake Tahoe, calling the storm, now in its third day, an "extreme blizzard." Areas of Nevada, Utah and Colorado were also affected.

"Moderate to heavy snow has persisted overnight across the northern Sierra Nevada," the National Weather Service in Sacramento said in a social media post Sunday. "Wind gusts ... are continuing to result in blizzard conditions."

More than 100 miles of I-80 remained closed Sunday from the Nevada border to Colfax, California, and there was "no estimated time of reopening the freeway," the California Highway Patrol warned. Hundreds of travelers were trapped in their vehicles for hours, and more than 300 vehicles were stranded. By Sunday night, more than 7,800 homes and businesses in California still had not regained power after the storm knocked it out, according to poweroutage.us.

"We suggest you stay home, stay warm and don’t put yourself and your family in a dangerous situation," the CHP in Truckee, California, said on social media.

The CHP office in South Lake Tahoe warned motorists that tire chains are required for traveling through the mountains, where more than 7 feet of snow fell over the weekend.

The snow was expected to continue through Sunday. A smaller system could add 1-2 feet at higher elevations Monday and Tuesday, Alan Reppert, an AccuWeather senior meteorologist, told USA TODAY. The second storm was also forecast to bring some rain.

"There are some areas in the highest elevations that could still see 10-12 feet," Reppert said. "These storms happen once every few years, but it is nothing that is entirely out of the normal for the area or will break any records."

A blizzard warning was in effect until midnight for some areas above 6,500 feet, while lower elevations were under a winter storm warning, the National Weather Service in Sacramento said. Up to 12 feet of snow was forecast to fall along the Sierra by late Sunday according to the Weather Prediction Center.

100+ mph winds, stuck vehicles: Dangerous blizzards hit mountains in West

Ski resort will be digging out for the 'foreseeable future'

"High avalanche danger is expected in the backcountry" through Sunday, the weather service warned. Ski resorts live for major snowstorms, but there are limits. Many resorts were forced to shut down Friday, although some were hoping to reopen as soon as Sunday.

A wind gust of 190 mph was recorded near the Palisades Tahoe resort, Reppert told USA TODAY.

"We are going to do our very best to get chairlifts spinning" on Sunday, Palisades Tahoe said on its website. "Our teams have been playing catchup the past two days, but there is still a lot of work to do. We will be digging out for the foreseeable future."

Palisades had received more than 5 feet of snow over three days, according to the National Weather Service's Sacramento office. Thirty miles to the north, the Sugar Bowl resort got 87 inches, or more than 7 feet − enough to cover the typical NBA center.

Sugar Bowl also planned to reopen Sunday but warned of "significant" delays while resort workers dug out and conducted avalanche mitigation.

"It's deep, so deep we have not been able to make it to the snow stakes yet," a statement on the resort website said. "Your understanding and patience will be rewarded with some terrific skiing."

In the eastern Sierra, the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area was closed Sunday as winds of up to 70 mph made it too difficult for ski patrol to complete avalanche mitigation, the resort said. More than 3 feet of snow fell over three days and more was expected.

Where is the blizzard in California?

The National Weather Service's Churchill called the storm an “extreme blizzard for the Sierra Nevada, in particular, as well as other portions of Nevada and even extending into Utah and portions of western Colorado.” But he said he didn’t expect records to be broken.

“It’s certainly just about as bad as it gets in terms of the snow totals and the winds,” Churchill said. “It doesn’t get much worse.”

Snow plow driver Kyle Frankland said several parts of his rig broke as he cleared wet snow underneath piles of powder.

“I’ve been in Truckee 44 years. This is a pretty good storm,” Frankland said. “It’s not record-breaking by any means, but it’s a good storm.”

“It’s a blizzard,” Truckee resident Dubravka Tomasin said. “It’s pretty harrowing.”

Rare back-to-back tornadoes hit Central California

Two tornadoes touched down on back-to-back days over the weekend in Central California, a rare event facilitated by moisture in the area from a winter storm, the Los Angeles Times reported.

A Saturday afternoon twister in the Kings County town of Corcoran, 50 miles south of Fresno, did not appear to have any major impact. However, the one that hit Friday in Madera County, 90 miles north of Corcoran, damaged an elementary school, according to the weather service office in Hanford.

"This is the first time I’ve ever actually observed two tornadoes back-to-back," Carlos Molina, a meteorologist with that office, told the Times. "For Central California we normally would get one, possibly two tornadoes across our area between March and April."

Tornadoes are uncommon but hardly unprecedented in California, which registered 469 of them from 1950 to 2022 − an annual average of 6.5 − according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Much more unusual were the tornadoes that hit the San Luis Obispo County coast less than a minute from each other on Feb. 7, the first to land in that area in 20 years.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Blizzard slams California, Sierra Nevada with life-threatening weather