Skiers caught in avalanche in Sierra Nevada amid an epic snowstorm

Two backcountry skiers escaped uninjured Thursday after being caught in an avalanche that closed the state highway between Reno and Lake Tahoe in a part of the Sierra Nevada where as much as 6 feet of snow has fallen over the past four days.

“Luckily, no one was hurt,” said Meg Ragonese, spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Transportation.

The man and woman, who weren’t identified, walked off the mountain after rescue crews responded about 12:20 p.m. Thursday along the Mount Rose Highway west of the Mount Rose ski resort, Washoe County Sheriff's Deputy Jeff McCaskill said.

North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District spokeswoman Tia Rancourt said the skiers were “already out of harm’s way up on a hillside in the avalanche area” when the crews arrived.

“One of the skiers had assisted the other one,” she said. “Paramedics conducted a medical evaluation and they were released.”

Ragonese said the avalanche on U.S. Forest Service land struck a few vehicles traveling on the highway west of the summit near an area popular for sledding and cross-country skiing about 30 miles southwest of Reno.

At least two vehicles were stuck in several feet of snow and freed by snowplows from the state Transportation Department, she said.

Ragonese said the highway would remain closed for an indefinite period Thursday while crews tried to trigger man-made avalanches in an effort to reduce the threat of future snow slides.

Blizzard conditions had forced the closure of the highway — State Route 431 — most of Wednesday. A small avalanche briefly trapped three vehicles on an access road at the ski resort then, but no one was hurt.

At least 2 feet of snow has fallen in the past two days at ski resorts in the Tahoe area. A total of 70 inches has been recorded atop the Mt. Rose resort since Sunday, the National Weather Service said.

Earlier Thursday, the California Highway Patrol reopened a 50-mile stretch of U.S. Interstate 80 that was closed Wednesday night over Donner Pass west of Truckee, Calif. But chains or snow tires remained mandatory Thursday on all the Sierra passes stretching from south of Carson City to north of Reno.

Several schools in the Tahoe area canceled classes Thursday, and others started late.

Between 3 and 5 inches of snow was reported Wednesday night into Thursday in the Reno-Sparks area, where authorities were raising concerns about potential flooding into the weekend.

The weather service issued a flash-flood watch effective Saturday night through Monday morning throughout the region as another storm system moves in with warmer temperatures. As much as 4 inches of rain is forecast in Reno this weekend, with 6 to 12 inches in the Tahoe basin.

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