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Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press
A snow blower clears a road after an overnight storm dropped several inches of snow near Echo Summit Calif., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012. Despite recent storms which brought much needed snow to the Sierra Nevada, the California Department of Water Resources snow survey showed the snow pack to be 17.7 inches deep with a water content of 3.9 inches_ which is only 16 percent of normal for this location at this time of the year.

FRESNO, Calif. — Heavy snow and strong winds have rushed into California's Sierra Nevada, finally giving the area a long-overdue blast of winter.

A winter storm carrying the prospect of up to 5 feet of snow for the Northern Sierra began to hit late Tuesday and was expected to last well through Wednesday, putting state road crews on alert while brightening the state's water outlook heading into spring.

"After tonight, you probably don't want to travel in the Sierra until Thursday," said George Cline, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

Forecasters on Wednesday posted winter storm warnings for blizzard-like conditions with 5 feet of snow and 60 mph winds possible through Thursday afternoon. Snowfall rates up to 4 inches an hour were expected along the Sierra Crest.

The California Department of Transportation said chains are now required for Interstate 80 travelers from Placer County to Nevada County.

Strong winds and rain are forecast in the San Francisco Bay area. Caltrans said travel isn't recommended for big-rigs, motor homes and those pulling trailers.

State surveyors from the Department of Water Resources measured the Sierra's paltry snowpack on Tuesday and found it just 30 percent of normal.

The Northern California storm could ease fears among the 29 agencies that depend on snowmelt delivered through the State Water Project that already are bracing for meager allocations. Some farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley have been told to expect just half of the water they requested for the spring and summer growing seasons.

The forecast calls for snow in both the Sierra and Coast mountain ranges with the biggest wallop coming above 6,500 feet, where accumulation could be between 2 and 4 feet, and up to 5 feet at the highest elevations.

The cold front sweeping down from the Gulf of Alaska will also bring gusts up to 110 mph along the Sierra crests, and 60 to 70 mph "where people are," Cline said. Snow levels could drop to 2,000 feet.

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Caltrans is bracing for what could be the biggest snowfall of the extremely dry winter by having Sierra crews work continuously on 12-hour shifts. On Interstate-80, the main east-west trucking corridor in Northern California, at least 200 people operating 134 pieces of equipment will be on duty. On Interstate 50, 100 people and 74 pieces of equipment will be working to keep roads clear.

Supervisors on the road will monitor ice conditions and decide with the California Highway Patrol when to require chains.

In the Coast ranges, forecasters predict 6 to 12 inches of snow above 3,000 feet and 4 inches at 2,000 feet. Up to a half-inch of rain is expected in the Sacramento Valley with scattered showers farther south.

Along the coast, up to an inch of rain could fall on areas north of the San Francisco Bay, with showers diminishing near Monterey.