Storms soak Butte

MORE RIVER THAN ROAD <br>A sign sticks up above a flooded field two miles north of Hamilton city near County Road 8.

A sign sticks up above a flooded field two miles north of Hamilton city near County Road 8.

Photo By Brenda Vettel

Ditsy drivers, toppled trees and wasted water have marked more than a week of fierce storms that tousled Butte County but paled in comparison to harder-hit areas of the state.

On Jan. 3, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger included Butte in the list of 13 counties that have been named official disaster areas. With the recognition comes relief funds.

This week, John Gulserian, Butte County’s director of emergency services, was catching his breath after days that saw county workers ditching vacation plans to work on storm issues. “This round is over,” he said.

He said it would be several weeks before the county can assess the damage to public and private property, including agricultural losses, and put a dollar figure on it. “We have to wait until the water has receded a little bit.”

“Palermo was probably the hardest hit with localized flooding,” Gulserian said. Several roads in Butte, Glenn and Tehama counties were closed and most reopened by Tuesday as river levels receded. Levees held tight. Dozens of Chico residents went to One-Mile Recreation Area to see the overflowing Sycamore Pool, and the annual Jan. 1 polar bear swim went on as scheduled.

Rescue workers have also been working overtime dealing with people who attempt to drive over flooded roads—even driving around posted barriers and warning signs.

“It’s really dangerous. People underestimate the water. They underestimate their driving abilities,” said Janet Upton, spokesperson for CDF Fire/ Butte County Fire Rescue. In anticipation of such “poor judgment,” swift-water rescue crews were pre-positioned at “the notorious areas,” including west Chico, River Road, Ord Ferry’s “dips” and the Honcut area south of Oroville. At least a dozen people, and a couple of dogs, had been rescued by mid-day Tuesday.

Upton, herself experienced in swift-water rescue, said when they reach the stranded motorists “a lot of the times they’re suffering from embarrassment more than anything.” But they’ve been lucky, she said. “It’s nothing to mess around with. We all feel like we’re beating our heads against the wall. … It’s amazing how little water it takes to launch a vehicle.” Also, at the discretion of the California Highway Patrol, drivers may be cited for ignoring the barriers.

The storms, while troublesome, are much less significant than the “100-year storm” that struck Butte in 1997, flooding Butte Creek Canyon and other areas, causing $30 million in damages. So far, the recent storms have caused $100 million in damage statewide, with the Napa Valley being one of the hardest-hit communities.

Ironically, given the state’s water storage problems, 746,575 acre-feet of water was released from Oroville Dam between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2. Shasta Dam also had releases.

Bill Cochran, supervising engineering for the state Department of Water Resources, said DWR works in conjunction with other agencies to determine how much water to release based on criteria set up by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Dams are required to maintain a minimum amount of “free space” called a flood reserve. “Once that water level is exceeded, we say we’re ‘encroached,'” he explained.

The “spilling” began last week, with water cascading into the Feather River. Cochran said the melting snowpack should refill the dam in the spring.

Gulserian added that citizens would be well-advised to carry disaster kits and collect sandbags, the latter of which are available nearest Chico at Fire Station 41—Nord. “Watch the news and be prepared,” he said. The Emergency Operations Center’s information line is 538-6499.

Partly cloudy skies are forecast for the coming week, as the National Weather Service reports the next storm will just graze Butte County.