Californians and public safety officials spent Thursday gearing up for a series of cold, wet, windy storms that began dousing the state Thursday night.
A parade of storms is expected to pour up to 5 inches of rain on the Northern San Joaquin Valley, drop as much as 10 feet of snow at higher elevations in the Sierra and buffet the state with wind ranging from 35 mph to 150 mph, according to warnings from the state Office of Emergency Services, local public safety officials and weather forecasters.
The National Weather Service has a high wind warning in effect until 4 p.m. today. Forecasters predicted wind gusts would reach up to 65 mph in the valley during the warning pe-riod.
"We expect Mother Nature to pack a heavy punch," PG&E spokeswoman Nicole Tam said.
It's been two years since California has seen storms like this, said Frank McCarton, chief deputy director of the state OES.
Downtown Modesto received a third of an inch of steady, soaking rain as of 10 p.m., but much more is expected before Sunday.
While there is little chance of flooding in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, state and fed-eral officials said they are concerned about erosion and landslides in fire-scarred Southern California and at high elevations.
Mountainous areas will see heavy snow that will build because the storms are wet and cold. Wind up to 150 mph will blast high elevations, McCarton said.
"It'll be blizzardlike conditions," he added.
Sandbagging in low-lying areas
In the valley, people started piling sandbags Thursday in flood-prone areas, such as homes backed up against Dry Creek in Modesto's La Loma neighborhood.
City employees had filled 5,000 sandbags by noon Thursday and expected to continue the effort today, said Ron Shriver, Modesto's street supervisor.
Officials don't expect enough rain to push Dry Creek over its banks in Modesto, said Royjindar Singh, spokesman for the Stanislaus County Office of Emergency Services.
"There hasn't been a lot of rain recently, so the ground is going to soak up most of the rain," Singh said. "The Tuolumne River is empty right now, and Dry Creek will just dump into the river and get out of town."
Stanislaus County Public Works employees said several residents picked up sandbags Thursday, but most of those residents live in low-lying areas and have experienced flooding. The employees said they expect to see more people show up today.
If there is flooding, it is ex- pected to be light and localized, according to irrigation district spokeswomen.
"If we get a lot of rain in a short amount of time, we can expect standing water," said Tony Souza, a supervisor with Modesto's Department of Operations and Maintenance. "You need to be careful because you don't know what's under that water."
River flooding does not appear to be a big danger.
This week's storms follow a dry autumn and winter, so there is plenty of room behind Don Pedro Dam to store the water that flows down the Tuolumne River to the valley out of the mountains and foothills. Don Pedro's water level is at 755 feet above sea level, which is 45 feet below the level where water would be put into flood control space, said Modesto Irrigation District spokeswoman Melissa Williams.
Wind is expected to cause problems, however. Officials agree that heavy wind could interrupt power supplies, so people are advised to be prepared.
Residents in the Lake Tahoe region stocked up on provisions, snow shovels and emergency items Thursday.
A rare blizzard warning was issued for the region through Saturday morning.
"It's been several years since we've seen a storm this impressive," said Chris Jordan, a meteorologist with the National Wea-ther Service in Reno.
Plan to drive in Sierra? Don't
Forecasters said wind would increase to 80 to 100 mph today, with gusts to near 145 mph at the highest elevations.
Snow totals of 3 to 5 feet were expected above 7,000 feet by Saturday, with higher totals in some areas. At Lake Tahoe, 1 to 2 feet was predicted.
On its Web site, the weather service told motorists not to drive across Sierra passes today or tonight.
The storms are potentially good news for the state's water supply, much of which comes from the Sierra snowpack. Snow levels along the 400-mile-long range were 60 percent of normal, according to the first of the state's annual snow surveys released Thursday.
In Southern California, the wind was expected to be less severe, but homeowners struggling to rebuild after October's wildfires braced for torrential rain that could bring flash floods and mudslides.
Gov. Schwarzenegger announced that officials will activate state emergency operations centers in Los Alamitos and Sacramento today and have been coordinating with the California National Guard, the U.S. Coast Guard and local authorities.
Low areas around Los Angeles and Orange County braced for up to 4 inches of rain, and mountains in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties could see up to 9 inches.
Some south-facing slopes could get downpours totaling 15 inches, including some areas particularly prone to mudslides after fires, said Ken Clark, who is a senior meteorologist with Accuweather.com. Mountains around Malibu could get as much as 8 inches of rain, he said, and higher elevations in San Diego County could see 7 inches.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.