The rain has started to return in Northern California and will continue over the next few days, but officials aren't as concerned about the upcoming weather so much as the damage already done to the Oroville Dam's already compromised main spillway.

The risk of flooding has dropped substantially, but Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea warned residents Wednesday that they remain in "an emergency situation."

Evacuations lifted for communities below Oroville Dam

Residents listen at the Bangor Community Hall as they get the news that the evacuation order has been lifted. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Residents listen at the Bangor Community Hall as they get the news that the evacuation order has been lifted. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Authorities lifted mandatory evacuation orders Tuesday for communities below the Oroville Dam.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea announced the order had been changed to an evacuation warning after he said the risk of flooding had been reduced.

"We have concluded it is safe to reduce the emergency evacuation order to an evacuation warning," said Honea, who had made the initial call Sunday to evacuate a large swath of three counties below the imperiled dam.

At the time, residents were told the spillway to the dam could collapse within an hour.

Roadblocks on the two main highways leading to Oroville were dismantled without announcement by midday Tuesday.

"Thousands of lives were protected" and the loss of the spillway was averted, Honea said.

He said use of the emergency spillway, while brief, bought time for an inspection. That review confirmed that no erosion or "piping" was threatening the integrity of the main spillway.

Honea said residents and business owners were now allowed to return to their communities, but that they needed to be prepared to evacuate again at a moment's notice should new problems arise.

The decision comes amid growing frustration among residents, who were forced to flee their homes Sunday night and given little time to prepare.

More than 100,000 people were ordered to evacuate from communities downstream of Lake Oroville Sunday night after the emergency spillway at dam developed a hole, prompting fears it could collapse.

"It was pandemonium," said Officer Chad Hertzell, a spokesman for California Highway Patrol in North Sacramento. "It was pretty crazy."

Highways, streets and gas stations were jam-packed with fleeing motorists.

Carrying portable fuel tanks, CHP officers and workers from the California Department of Transportation helped stranded evacuees to fill up their gas tanks.

As residents raced to flee their communities, many left their belongings and pets behind, the officer said.

CHP officers have been checking on properties in Oroville this week and looking for any signs of looting, he said. Oroville was abandoned, except for a few stragglers, Hertzell said.

At a news conference Monday, Honea had defended his decision to call for evacuations on Sunday.

Honea said the sheriff's office was working on a “repopulation” plan for evacuees.

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