Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press
Late winter storms forced school and road closures from Seattle to upstate New York on Wednesday, but the snow was welcomed in California as it suffers through one of the driest winters in history.
The blast from the Gulf of Alaska was expected to bring up to 5 feet of snow at the highest elevations of the northern Sierra Nevada, delighting skiers and the 28 million Californians who depend on snowmelt to meet their water needs.
"It's a pretty typical storm, it's just not typical this year," said Johnnie Powell, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.
Officials issued avalanche warnings in the high Sierra as the storm that began in earnest just after midnight was supposed to keep hammering the Lake Tahoe area, the northeast part of the state and the counties surrounding Yosemite National Park well into Thursday.
High winds, intense snowfall and a weak snowpack combined to create dangerous conditions, the Sierra Avalanche Center advisory said. It urged skiers to stay out of avalanche terrain and off some steep slopes.
In Shasta County, a truck slid off a hail-covered highway early Wednesday, killing a firefighter and injuring an officer responding to previous accidents.
Snow also created havoc across the northern U.S. Albany, N.Y., saw its first significant snowfall of the season on Wednesday, forcing schools to send students home early ahead of a storm expected to dump a foot or more through Thursday.
Snowy conditions were blamed for an accident that killed one person and injured at least four others in the Hudson Valley town of Newburgh.
In the Dakotas, a winter storm shut down schools and roads, led to canceled flights and caused scattered power outages. Blizzard and winter weather warnings and advisories were in effect.
As much as a foot of snow was expected in southeast North Dakota and northeast South Dakota. Winds were gusting near 40 mph in some areas.
A snow storm that could drop more than 10 inches of snow in parts of northern New England was moving into the region, and the National Weather Service has issued a winter storm warning for a dumping that could bring 8 inches to the snow-starved Boston and North Shore areas by Thursday.
Avalanche forecasters warned of dangerous conditions in the backcountry of southwestern Colorado after some areas received as much as two feet of snow with the potential of one more foot.
In western Washington, snow showers turned into rain. Up to 5 inches of snow were expected in the eastern part of the state.
Nowhere was the deluge more fast and furious than the mountains of Northern California, where falling snow and drifts blown by gusting winds cut visibility to a quarter-mile or less on Interstate 80, the main highway from San Francisco to Nevada.
The California Department of Transportation required chains for 4-wheel drive vehicles without snow tires, imposed lower speed limits and closed isolated stretches of several mountain passes due to heavy snow.
The National Weather Service said the snow level dropped to 3,000 feet in the northern Sierra Nevada. An inch of snow was falling each hour, and forecasters expected at least eight more inches into Thursday.
Although sunny skies were forecast for the weekend, the storm was expected to pick up strength overnight before bringing another two feet of snow and the possibility of 100 mile per hour wind gusts to the northern Sierra during Thursday's morning commute.
With white-out conditions expected on some highways, the National Weather Service warned motorists who had grown accustomed to clear winter roads to stock their vehicles with blankets, food, water and flashlights.
"Skiers can go have all of the fun they want on the weekend. It worked out perfectly," said weather forecaster Powell. "It should be plowed out and there should be plenty of fresh powder."
Strong winds and heavy rain made for difficult driving conditions on San Francisco Bay area roads. At least two bridges — the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge — were under a high-wind advisory. Caltrans said travel wasn't recommended for big-rigs, motorhomes and drivers pulling trailers.
The National Weather Service also issued a high surf advisory for the San Francisco and Monterey bay areas, warning that the turbulent weather could produce waves up to 15-feet high and strong rip currents.
The Northern California storm could ease fears among the 29 agencies that depend on snowmelt delivered through the State Water Project. Some farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley already have been told to expect just half of the water they requested for the spring and summer growing seasons.
Associated Press writers Dave Kolpack and Blake Nicholson in Fargo, N.D., and Terry Collins, Louise Chu and Sudhin Thanawala in San Francisco contributed to this report.
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