LAS VEGAS (AP) – A powerful blizzard howled Saturday in the Sierra Nevada as the biggest storm of the season shut down a long stretch of Interstate 80 in California and gusty winds and heavy rain hit lower elevations, leaving tens of thousands of homes without power.

More than 10 feet (3 meters) of snow was expected at higher elevations, National Weather Service meteorologist William Churchill said Saturday, creating a “life-threatening concern” for residents in the region around Lake Tahoe and blocking travel on the key east-west freeway.

“Snow totals are already in the feet and will end up by the end of this event, late Sunday, in a range of 5 to 12 feet (1.5 to 3.6 meters),” Churchill said, predicting highest accumulations at elevations above 5,000 feet (1,500 meters).

He said that while the storm may not set records, it was 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.”

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

Earlier, the weather service warned that widespread blowing snow was creating “extremely dangerous to impossible” travel conditions, with wind gusts in the high mountains at more than 100 mph (160 kph).

Avalanche danger was “high to extreme” in backcountry areas through Sunday evening throughout the central Sierra and greater Lake Tahoe area, the weather service said.

California authorities on Friday shut down 100 miles (160 kilometers) of I-80, the main route between Reno and Sacramento, due to “spin outs, high winds, and low visibility.” There was no estimate when the freeway would reopen from the California-Nevada border west of Reno to near Emigrant Gap, California.

Pacific Gas & Electric reported around 8 a.m. Saturday that almost 30,000 households and businesses were without power. In Nevada, utility company NV Energy reported outages for more than 10,000 customers in the Carson City, Reno and Lake Tahoe areas and along the I-80 corridor.

A tornado touched down Friday afternoon in Madera County and caused some damage to an elementary school, said Andy Bollenbacher, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Hanford.

Some ski resorts that shut down Friday said they planned to remain closed on Saturday to dig out with an eye toward reopening Sunday, but most said they would provide updates Saturday morning.

Palisades Tahoe, the largest resort on the north end of Tahoe and site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, closed all chairlifts Saturday due to snow, wind and low visibility.

Several other ski areas also were closed Saturday, including Sugar Bowl, Boreal and Sierra. Heavenly Mountain Resort planned to open late with limited operations.

The storm began barreling into the region Thursday. A blizzard warning through Sunday morning covers a 300-mile (480-kilometer) stretch of the mountains.

Some ski lovers raced up to the mountains ahead of the storm.

Daniel Lavely, an avid skier who works at a Reno-area home/construction supply store, was not one of them. He said Friday that he wouldn’t have considered making the hour-drive to ski on his season pass at a Tahoe resort because of the gale-force winds.

But most of his customers Friday seemed to think the storm wouldn’t be as bad as predicted, he said.

“I had one person ask me for a shovel,” Lavely said. “Nobody asked me about a snowblower, which we sold out the last storm about two weeks ago.”

Meteorologists predicted as much as 10 feet (3 meters) of snow was possible in the mountains around Lake Tahoe by the weekend, with 3 to 6 feet (0.9 to 1.8 meters) in the communities on the lake’s shores and more than a foot (30 centimeters) possible in the valleys on the Sierra’s eastern front, including Reno.

Yosemite National Park closed Friday and officials said it would remain closed through at least noon Sunday.


Associated Press reporters Janie Har in San Francisco, Julie Walker in New York, Hollie Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas contributed to this report.


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