Dubbed the strongest storm in at least five years, an “atmospheric river” burst over the state and Eastern Madera County over the weekend, forcing flood evacuations in North Fork and Yosemite Valley while it toppled trees and caused numerous mudslides.
Another storm was predicted to pick up after the weekend, with up to four feet of snow forecast above 6,000 feet elevation, and three to seven inches of rain below that level on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch until 4 p.m. Wednesday in Madera and surrounding counties.
From Friday into Monday, gray skies remained above the mountains as the “river” storm, sometimes called “the pineapple connection” due to its tropical origins, brought warmer temperatures and a barrage of rainfall.
At Bass Lake, with Willow Creek as its main water source, the storm became so powerful by late Sunday that PG&E had to increase the lake’s discharge rates. That quickly turned an evacuation advisory in North Fork into mandatory evacuations for low-lying Church Street and Bass Lake Mobile Home Park at 1 a.m. Monday, as released water overflowed creeks and streams.
Michael Kipp was one of those evacuated from the park. He said his wife and kids anxiously watched as the water level from Willow Creek’s South Fork rose as close as three feet from their home before they made their retreat.
“We needed the water, but to witness the creek rising like that, and all our neighbors raiding their places to get their stuff out of there was scary,” Kipp said. “It was so intense. Frightening.”
A dozen homes were evacuated in North Fork early Monday. Fortunately, Kipp’s home was mostly spared, and no injuries were reported during the evacuation process. Warnings remained in place Tuesday for several areas in the town, with sheriff’s deputies regularly patrolling evacuated areas to keep out possible looters.
The Bass Lake Ranger District’s office in North Fork was temporarily closed as a result of the floods, and PG&E said, in a statement, it would continue to monitor water discharge at the lake’s Crane Valley Dam should increased flows remain necessary.
In terms of the storm’s impacts on California’s sixth year of drought, Bill Peterson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Hanford, said it performed “superbly well.”
“It’s not going to cure the drought, of course,” Peterson said. “A couple seasons of average rainfall would help do that. This storm did good for this year so far, at least, but we won’t know for sure until winter is said and done.”
From noon Friday, Jan. 6 to noon Monday, Jan. 9, Oakhurst received 4.2 inches of rain, Peterson said, along with North Fork (7.2 inches), Bass Lake (5.5), Mariposa (5.25), Coarsegold (4.02), and Yosemite Lakes Park (2.41).
At the Bass Lake Ranger District in North Fork, the season total reached 23.02 inches by Tuesday. Through records kept at the station since 1903, the area receives an average of around 32 inches from July 1 to June 30 each year.
In Yosemite Valley, the storm unleashed the brunt of its fury, Peterson said, notching 8.36 inches in 72 hours. That caused the Merced River to crest at 12.7 feet, below the predicted high of 17 feet, but enough to transform lush meadows and picnic areas into swampy bogs.
Terrence Prayer, an employee at Yosemite’s Curry Village, had to take shelter with the American Red Cross at Oakhurst Evangelical Free Church, where he remained Monday.
Along with his Bible, Prayer said he and colleague Emelia Sanches found ways to keep busy with Sanches’s pet guinea pig Mr. Bubbles, also housed at the shelter.
“It’s adventure time,” Prayer said, adding his service in the U.S. Army made him used to sleeping on a cot. “These things happen when you live in the mountains and the forest. So I thought hey, this is an adventure. So I grabbed my GoPro camera and went outside in the rain here in (Oakhurst) to see what it’s like.”
On Monday, cleanup was underway in Yosemite Valley as the swollen river began to recede.
Jamie Richards, the park’s spokeswoman, said the storm caused minimal damage, despite initial preparation for much more significant impacts.
In the Mountain Area, several trees fell across roadways throughout the weekend, along with reported mudslides. But the hazards were quickly cleared by Madera County and Caltrans road crews who worked through torrential rain to ensure safe passage.