Worst flood in 24 years projected for Russian River at Guerneville as atmospheric river soaks North Bay

Emergency officials recommend residents along Russian River evacuate as river rises at nearly 1 foot per hour

The Russian River at Guerneville is expected to reach 45.9 feet Wednesday night, more than 13 feet above flood stage, according to the California Nevada River Forecast Center.
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Amid drenching rains from an atmospheric river storm, the National Weather Service on Tuesday forecast the Russian River at Guerneville in Sonoma County will reach 45.9 feet by Wednesday night — nearly 14 feet above its flood stage — and a level that would rank as the worst flood in 24 years.

The last time the river waters rose that high was in January 1995. The all-time record for the Russian River is 49.5 feet, in 1986.

At 10:50 a.m., the Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Department warned of “major flooding” in the Guerneville area and recommended that residents living along the Russian River evacuate.

“It’s pretty serious,” said Peter Fickenscher, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento. “We consider this a major flood. There will be numerous impacts. It’s a rare event. The rainfall has been very focused and concentrated right through the Russian River basin. It has been non-stop rain for 24 hours and it will continue overnight into Wednesday.”

The river is forecast to peak at 10 p.m. Wednesday evening. If it reaches the forecast level, much of downtown Guerneville is expected to flood, including Safeway supermarket, the post office, Highway 116 west of town and Monte Rio Elementary School.

By 10 a.m. Tuesday, the river at Guerneville had already risen 17 feet from the day before, surging from from 10 feet to 27 feet. It was rising nearly 1 foot per hour, and expected to exceeded the 32-foot flood stage by 7 p.m. Tuesday evening.

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office was “advising all residents in the lower Russian River area to be prepared to move to higher ground,” according to spokeswoman Misti Harris.

“This is a significant storm event,” Harris said. “Flooding is already starting on the lower Russian River.”

The Napa River also is expected to exceed its flood level by 2 feet, which could cause modest flooding in some parts of Napa at St. Helena. And the National Weather Service said Cache Creek in Yolo County was expected to exceed its banks, posing a flood risk for the town of Woodland nearby.

The reason for the fast-rising creeks and rivers? A firehouse from the Pacific Ocean. The atmospheric river storm that began soaking Northern California on Monday has been very narrowly focused, experts say, only about 100 to 200 miles wide, with Sonoma and Napa counties taking far more of the rainfall than any other place in the Bay Area.

“The plume of moisture that is hitting the coast hasn’t moved around,” Fickenscher said. “It has been at the same location for 24 hours. The moisture comes off the ocean and hits the coastal range there. It squeezes a lot of water out of the atmosphere, and the soils are already saturated. We’ve had storm after storm.”

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