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Endless winter: Rural Northern California set to endure yet another storm

Snowfall on the mountains
Snowfall on the mountains in Humboldt County this month.
(Mark Moore)
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This isn’t some old-timer’s tall tale: Lori Ford has been walking two miles down a dirt road, with snow past her knees, just to get to work this month.

The pharmacy technician lives in the Mendocino County mountains north of Willits. Keeping her eyes peeled for bears and mountain lions, she has been hoofing it — from her house, down a narrow mountain road, to a four-wheel-drive vehicle she keeps parked at the bottom of the mountain for the rest of her trek to work.

For the last three weeks, and atmospheric river storm after atmospheric river storm, there has been over 4 feet of powder at her house. The steep road became too dangerous to drive.

But, by golly, she has still been clocking in at the Garberville Pharmacy in neighboring Humboldt County.

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She just can’t believe there are more storms on the way and that her hellish commute might be this way for a while yet.

Is she ready for spring?

“I was ready yesterday,” Ford said. “I’m ready for winter to be over so I can complain about the heat in the summer.”

VIDEO | 03:49
Walking to work in the snow

Across rural Northern California, people aren’t exactly thrilled to have yet another storm this week, fueled by yet another atmospheric river.

The storm — which is hitting Northern and Central California the hardest — threatens to trigger widespread flooding as warm rain melts a record accumulation of snow.

Rivers and creeks in Mendocino, Monterey, Merced, Stanislaus, Sacramento and San Joaquin counties could see flooding, according to the National Weather Service.

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Many of those rivers flooded in January, when nine back-to-back atmospheric rivers hammered the state, contributing to at least 22 deaths, including people killed by falling trees and surging waters.

In recent days, emergency crews have used helicopters to air-drop hay bales to thousands of cattle starving in the snow in Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties.

Local ranchers and officials have come together to collect and distribute hay to starving cattle over a mountainous Northern California region.

March 8, 2023

The storm system pounding the region this week is a lot warmer, and at higher elevations, “we expect the rain to soak up into the snowpack,” said Kathleen Zontos, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Eureka.

“That can make any snow much heavier, so if there’s a lot of snow on roofs, that can be a concern. The snow load can be pretty heavy, and people should consider — safely, of course — clearing off their roofs to lighten the load.”

Zontos said that although coastal Northern California typically gets a lot of rain in the winter, this season’s deluges are catching people off guard after several years of drought.

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That region should see heavy rain through Friday, with light rain over the weekend. Another atmospheric river storm with potential flooding is possible early next week, she said.

Ryan Rhoades, superintendent of the Mendocino City Community Services District, said that his foggy coastal hamlet has gotten 29 inches of rain so far this year. It’s right at the historic average, down to the inch, he said.

That’s a huge change from the last two years. Amid Mendocino’s worst drought on record, the seaside town — which has no municipal water system— had wells running dry and relied on expensive trucked-in water to avert crisis.

At least in Mendocino, the rain this week isn’t such a bad thing, Rhoades said Thursday, noting that it was pouring outside.

“I don’t want to say the drought is over. I don’t want to say things are good, because it’s still early, but it’s a lot worse in other parts of the county and the state than it is here,” he said. “People are relieved and happy because there’s water in their wells.”

As for Ford, the storms can’t end fast enough.

Living off the grid in “the boondocks,” she and her husband are used to having to stock up on food, water and gas for their generator in case of emergencies. But this winter has been brutal, she said.

“This is like Colorado snow weather,” she said her husband — originally from that state — proclaimed this month.

Ford makes the snowy hike and drive to Garberville on Wednesdays. She works and stays with a friend at a lower elevation, hiking back up the mountain to be with her husband and two young children on Fridays.

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She worries about the snow melting this week and what it will do to the lower-elevation towns. And she worries about her own home.

“We could have a landslide on our own property,” she said. “The snow has saturated the ground so much, the water has nowhere to go.”

As yet another atmospheric river barrels toward California, residents brace for the threat of engorged rivers and overtopped reservoirs.

March 9, 2023

At the Garberville Pharmacy, she’s spent a lot of time commiserating with customers.

The pharmacy, next to the Eel River, is at a lower elevation, so snow is not an issue. But customers from remote areas drive for hours, even in the best conditions, to get their prescriptions, said pharmacist Bryan Coleman.

“Most of our patients are affected by the storms,” Coleman said. “We’ve got some who are struggling to get down from the mountains in the snow and some struggling to get up from the ocean,” dodging downed trees and power lines.

One of his fellow pharmacists has been stuck at home for days, unable to get to work.

On Wednesday, Coleman mailed a prescription for a snowbound patient in the mountain town of Zenia, 30 miles away. The post office, he said, offered to deliver the medication to a nearby fire station where the patient could pick it up.

In recent days, the pharmacy staff has rushed to fill prescriptions for far-flung patients who have made it to the store, only to have to rush back home before another storm hit.

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“It’s just — it’s a mess,” Coleman said.

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