Blake Heauser’s chainsaw slowly rumbled softly. The sounds of tall trees splitting and cracking under the weight of freshly fallen snow pierced the silence as the last of winter’s weather descended on the city tucked away in the Northern California foothills. He had cleared a path through the wooded debris for now, but with more storms in the forecast, it might not be long.
Heauser had spent days removing fallen trees from the roads that wound through the hillsides of his Grass Valley community, even as those roads disappeared under the heavy snow. He and others worked around the clock to ensure vulnerable neighbors could either evacuate or stay safely in their buried homes while dealing with the effects of long and widespread power outages that left some without heating or pumped well water.
“This is the craziest storm I know,” said Heauer. “It was relentless — it snowed and snowed and snowed.”
Nestled in a sea of conifers that descend into the Sierra Nevada, the beautiful and rugged terrain has always been a source of danger to the people who live there. But conditions are intensifying, adding new fears about what the future holds for California’s scenic and historic mountain towns.
While locals are grappling with the effects of this very wet winter, the threat of wildfires lingers just months away. The extremes have tested key infrastructure across the seasons, adding danger to even the most resilient and prepared residents. They are also inextricably linked.
Trees weakened by drought, unable to withstand the heavy snow on their branches and the howling winds that swept through these slopes and ravines, banged against houses and fences. Tree branches tore through power lines and contaminated thoroughfares before being buried in snow, impeding both emergency entry and escape.
Severe storms have wreaked havoc across the state, even blanketing mild parts of California — from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Hollywood Hills — in a white dust. Higher elevations have meanwhile been buried.
The toll is still being counted as communities begin to recover from the consequences. Buildings have collapsed under the weight of the snow and more than a dozen deaths in a snowy area of Southern California could be linked to the storms.
Yosemite National Park has announced it will remain closed until March 17 — a “best-case scenario” due to “significant snowfall” while the Central Sierra Snow Lab, located on the Sierra near Donner Pass has reported more than 50 feet of snowfall this season.
The mountains of San Bernardino County were among the hardest-hit, leaving residents and visitors stranded without a chance to secure food or emergency supplies for weeks as widespread power outages left neighborhoods dark and cold. At least five people were found dead in their homes as the snow-covered area returned to normal.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom activated the California State Watch and declared states of emergency in 13 counties to help during the peak of the storms. But the widespread impact choked on resources as affected areas across the state called for more help.
The county of Nevada, which stretches from the low-lying areas north of Sacramento to the Tahoe National Forest to the eastern edge of Northern California, has borne the brunt of the power outages for the past week, leaving thousands of homes without light and heat for days during rain and Snow continues to fill the forecast without delay.
Utility Pacific Gas & Electric has been scrambling to repair fallen poles and lines left scattered by the storms, but a lack of ability to get the equipment into the harsh and frigid terrain has proved difficult and stymied progress .
Meanwhile, dozens of displaced residents have taken refuge in nighttime heat centers or in Nevada City’s historic hotels, which typically host tourists at this time of year. All last weekend, as the snow fell, neighbors gathered at cafes and swapped tales of shoveling snow and cold escapes from their mountainside homes. However, many could not go.
911 numbers received record numbers of calls as desperate friends, relatives and employers sought help for those who had been unavailable for days.
“We’ve been on countless roads that have absolutely nothing left of their regular infrastructure,” said Conrad Ball, deputy sheriff with the Nevada Sheriff’s Office Mobile Crisis Team. Ball and his partner, social worker Stacy Green, are one of several teams trying to get to every single person flagged for social checks. But the list is long and growing.
On a cold Friday night, the team spent more than 12 hours visiting residents and racing over narrow berms and chewed terrain. High in the hills, the smell of crisp pine is permeated by woodsmoke and gasoline, the remnants of backup heating in darkened neighborhoods. Mailboxes and trash cans have all but disappeared under thick mounds of snow, while car-shaped clumps signal where vehicles have been abandoned. The odd sign indicates a covered driveway, while others ask for help plowing.
There are 560 miles of road through these mountains, many of which are now buried in snow. Even an off-road vehicle slips and struggles through the thick frost and bumps over the fallen power lines that snake across the streets.
Ball and Green have been able to help dozens of families, either by making sure loved ones are ready to weather the rest of the storm, by providing essential supplies, or by assisting with evacuations. Often, Ball said, a disaster was avoided because nearby residents could get there sooner. “It’s common with these storms,” he said. “Everyone puts their differences aside and really helps each other out.” It’s an integral part of life in these remote areas.
“If you don’t have others to help you,” Ball added, “it’s not survivable.”
Stuart Blake, the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Nevada City, a historic neighborhood and tourist town that’s home to the county’s headquarters, said it wasn’t an uncommon feeling. Even with strong help and support, it was not easy.
Blake is one of many displaced by the storms as snow piled on his home, covering the vents that allowed him to safely use a stove. His power has been out for a week. This isn’t the first time – but it’s the worst, he said.
“We had Snowmageddon and it felt like it was a century storm,” he said, referring to an earlier weather event that ripped through the community that bears his name last year. “And it wasn’t as bad as this one. So we don’t have a word for it,” he added, laughing with a grimace. “We already used the best word we had.”
Visa Uksina of Nevada City, who could only reach his home on snowshoes this week, agreed. “It’s getting more intense,” he said, now safely out of his home and in the more accessible downtown area, where shops and restaurants offered a warm sanctuary to those who still don’t have electricity, to catch their breath. “It’s beautiful and terrible at the same time.”
A feeling that also hits Hauser hard. Born and raised in this area, he returned with his wife to start his own family in Nevada County. With a two-year-old daughter and another on the way, there’s a delicate balance between building a country life that feels like home and ensuring they’re safe as threats escalate.
As a corporate pilot who has to be on the road for long periods of time, he worries that his family will have to evacuate without him in the summer or lose power and heat in the winter. There’s only one way in and one way out, and “it’s constantly in the back of your mind,” he said. But the storm was distraction enough for now.
“It was all a blur,” he said of the past week as the family lost power. Shortly after, her generator shorted out and when it failed, it burned some electronics, including her water heater. When his toddler threw tantrums, they retreated to his parents’ house nearby. There, too, there is a risk of falling trees, which have already damaged a fence and a shed.
Heuser has since spent most days out in the elements helping others.
There was an elderly couple who were without electricity or heat and dependent on oxygen equipment. Some people had to dig paths to get out of their homes. And of course Hauser was out with his chainsaw to clear the fallen trees. It was a team effort, he said.
“We all peed around and saw where we could help,” Heauser said. “When we’re tired, they step in.” Along with the pristine natural beauty, it’s what keeps his family here that makes the extra worries worthwhile. For Heimer, it’s all about the people.
“If neighbors need help, we dig it up,” he said. “Our neighborhood is well located. As long as the trees stop falling – we will be fine.”