The devasting winter of 1981-82, Part I

Twenty-four-hour snowfall in Gateway neighborhood, Truckee, circa Jan. 5, 1982. | Mark McLaughlin

The winter of 1981-82 is notable for being the second wettest winter in California history, but it really made headlines 40 years ago for the impact of two separate but superlative weather events.

The first was an extraordinarily powerful Pacific storm that hit in early January 1982. It is still considered one of the most intense weather systems to ever strike the San Francisco Bay Area in terms of damage and casualties. In the Tahoe Sierra, that coastal downpour translated into a major blizzard in the higher elevations where more than 10 feet of snow incapacitated New Year’s holiday travelers around Lake Tahoe and set new snowfall records.

In late March, just when storm-weary residents in the mountains were looking forward to some spring-like weather, a second atmospheric incursion surged into the Tahoe Sierra. Energized by a deep low-pressure system anchored off the Oregon coast, this prolonged tempest walloped Donner Pass with more than 15 feet of snow in 12 days. The huge dump triggered a deadly avalanche at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort that tragically killed seven people. The disaster stunned residents, but the heroic rescue of a young female employee galvanized the community in a way that locals will never forget.

Rain, snow begin early

The El Niño-influenced 1981-82 winter season opened robustly with nearly 9 inches of rain in October at Blue Canyon on the Sierra west slope, more than double normal. In November nearly two weeks of steady, heavy rain triggered mud and rockslides that shut down vital Highway 50 between Placerville and South Lake Tahoe. Blue Canyon picked up more than 4 feet of snow that month, while upper slopes at Alpine Meadows garnered nearly 6 feet. The fresh powder made for the best Thanksgiving skiing conditions in years. More importantly, after a dry season the year before, both locations picked up more than 22 inches of precipitation (rain plus the water equivalent of snow), the second consecutive month with more than double the average moisture.

That storm set a new California snowfall record with 67 inches (5.6 feet) in 24 hours at Echo Summit, which ranks No. 2 overall in the United States.

Incredibly, the vigorous storm pattern out of the Pacific Ocean intensified in December, leading to a record month of precipitation in many Northern California locations. Santa Rosa pulled in nearly 18 inches of rain that month, the all-time December record for that community. Most impressive was Camp 6 in the Smith River Basin in Del Norte County in northwest California near the Oregon border, where its total of 82 inches of rain set a new California monthly record. At the close of the 1982 water year, Camp 6, at elevation 3,778 feet, would set California’s greatest single-season, rainfall total with 258 inches or 21.5 feet.

Ferocious January storms

Not to be outdone in this winter of superlatives, January opened with a gangbuster storm aimed directly at the San Francisco Bay Area. Torrential downpours raked the Central Coast region, setting precipitation records across the area. Berkeley picked up nearly 7 inches of rain on Jan. 4 — the statistical return period for a 24-hour storm that wet at that location is 1,100 years. Sixteen National Weather Service stations measured more than 10 inches of water on that date. At Richmond the odds of return reached 5,400 years.

In aggregate, nearly 100 stations reported their highest daily precipitation totals ever, with 42 of them recording 25 percent of their average, annual rainfall in just one day. This early January storm struck with such ferocity that it is ranked among the Top 10 worst storms in California history.

Widespread floods, mudslides and countless debris flows rendered hundreds of people homeless from Santa Cruz to Marin County. In the North Bay, precipitation approached 400 percent of average for the month. The Ben Lomond Landfill rain gage in Santa Cruz County recorded an incredible 15.20 inches of rain, the largest 24-hour tally ever recorded along the Central Coast where data collection began in 1890. In the higher elevations of the Santa Cruz Mountains, up to 25 inches of water fell in just three days, generating mudslides along Love Creek that killed at least 12 people.

Region-wide, rain-induced landslides caused 25 of the 33 deaths attributed to the storm. Damage was estimated at close to $300 million. Seven Bay Area counties were declared disaster areas by then President Ronald Reagan, becoming eligible for individual and public assistance.

Havoc in the Sierra

The unprecedented squall quickly surged into the Sierra where arctic air infiltrated the storm track and snow levels plummeted below 1,500 feet. In the mountains, temperatures first fell into the single digits and then plunged to well below zero. Blizzard conditions plagued Lake Tahoe where gusty winds whipped the crystalline snowflakes into near zero visibility.

Despite arduous traveling conditions, ski resorts were in great shape after multiple feet of new cold smoke powder fell in a matter of hours. It was a stark contrast from the year before when Donner Pass had only 8 inches of snow on the same date.

Snow accumulations increased into the 10- to 13-foot range. More than 100 avalanches were set intentionally at resorts and along mountain highways that weekend by ski patrollers using control guns and hand-thrown dynamite charges. Westbound Interstate-80 was shut down due to whiteout conditions and an 18-car pileup near Donner Summit. Highway 50 closed due to avalanche hazards, as did Mount Rose Highway. Snow slides also blocked the main road into Olympic Valley and on Highway 89 north of Tahoe City at Big Chief and Alpine Meadows Road.

Ski patrol at Squaw Valley Ski Resort (now Palisades Tahoe) had their hands full trying to keep the resort safe. On Jan. 4, Squaw Valley vice-president Jim Mott and ski patrolman Sam Davis had just finished avalanche control on the upper mountain when they were both buried in the deposition zone of a massive slide. Fortunately, the two men were able to dig air pockets around their heads before the snow set up like cement. Mott managed to reach his walkie talkie to alert other patrolmen who found their location in 30 minutes. Rescuer Mark Kraus spotted Mott’s fingertips poking through the snow and everyone started digging. Mott and Davis received oxygen at the scene but were not hospitalized.

That storm set a new California snowfall record with 67 inches (5.6 feet) in 24 hours at Echo Summit, which ranks No. 2 overall in the United States, behind the 76 inches measured at Silver Lake, Colo., from April 14 to 15, 1921. The Silver Lake event is also considered a world record.

The two-day snowfall total on Echo Summit was 80 inches (from Jan. 3 to 5), which ranks third in California in the 48-hour category.

Read Part II about the winter of 1981-82 in the next edition or at

This article is an excerpt from Mark McLaughlin’s book, “Snowbound! Legendary Winters of the Tahoe Sierra.”