A flood of tragic proportions on Mount Rose
August 1, 2005
Most of the Sierra Nevada’s annual precipitation comes from Pacific storm fronts that sweep through during the winter months, but it’s important to remember that certain atmospheric conditions can also foster dangerous summer thunderstorms. Exposure to lightning on mountain peaks and ridges can be deadly, while downbursts of rain can create flash floods in narrow canyons or along dry streambeds. Thunderstorm-induced, fatal lightning strikes have been in the news recently, including a July 28 incident in the high country of Sequoia National Park that killed two and injured six members of a Boy Scout troop.Nearly 70 people die every year in the United States from lightning, many of them in Florida and Colorado. To avoid becoming a grim statistic, at the first sign of lightning always seek a fully enclosed building, preferably with wiring and plumbing; or a hard-topped car or truck. Partially enclosed carports, covered patios, and tents are not safe shelters. Boaters should head for shore immediately; people outdoors should never stand under a tree. If you are exposed and there is no safe refuge nearby, squat down with your feet together, cover your ears and close your eyes. Lean forward with your heels off the ground to minimize contact with the ground. Deadly flash floodsWith all the focus on lightning safety, it may be easy to overlook that flash floods surpass lightning as the top weather-related killer in the U.S. flash floods are especially lethal in the arid west where normally dry canyons, gullies, and streambeds can suddenly fill with raging torrents of muddy water spawned by distant thunderstorms. Unsuspecting hikers and campers often have little or no time to escape. On July 20, 1956, the weather was hot and sticky throughout the Lake Tahoe region. In Reno the temperature peaked at only 91 degrees, but the humidity reached tropical proportions – a sultry 69 percent. The hot muggy air fueled an unstable atmosphere and generated thunderstorms over the eastern Sierra Nevada. By 5:30 that afternoon, towering thunderheads had developed along the Carson Range where the ominous cloud clusters were feeding on daytime heating and a juicy atmosphere loaded with water vapor. Light peripheral showers dampened Carson City with only two-tenths of an inch of rain, but one storm cell intensified as it drifted north. Jagged lightning bolts seared the dark sky, while sheets of rain and stinging hail began pelting the rugged Mount Rose area. Years of clear-cut logging, excessive grazing, and forest fires had stripped the soil of vegetation and reduced its capability to absorb moisture. Most of the torrential rain pounding the denuded mountain slopes went rushing quickly downhill. When the thunderstorm stalled over the Mount Rose watershed, creeks that were normally a trickle or even dry at this time of year, exploded into destructive torrents of mud, rock and timber. CaughtMotorists on the Mount Rose Highway were caught exposed and vulnerable when the deluge struck. Matt Wackowicz, his wife, and their three children were visiting from Sacramento and headed to a Lake Tahoe motel when red brake lights told of stopped traffic ahead. As they rounded a curve in the road, they came upon six cars stalled in the muddy water of Galena Creek now overflowing the highway. (Motorists should never challenge water more than a few inches deep flowing across the road. The pavement may be washed out and the force of moving water is surprisingly strong.)Some of the 16 stranded motorists began to evacuate their cars and climb for higher ground. Suddenly large rocks and broken tree branches began battering the sides of the parked automobiles. Fearing the worst, Wackowicz grabbed his two youngest children and told 10-year-old Fred to get out and run for it. The thick flow of debris oozing across the road pinned his wife’s door shut, forcing her to climb out the driver’s window. Seconds later a stronger surge flipped the car over, trapping Fred inside. Fortunately the young boy managed to escape through a broken window and scurry to safety in a nearby tree. The rest of his family struggled through the slurry of mud, water and debris.When one of the drivers, Reno resident William Boyatt, heard Wackowicz’s shouts for help, he jumped in to lend a hand. At that moment a wall of water 10 feet high surged down the canyon. The flow was so fierce three cars were immediately swept away into the steep ravine below – luckily, all empty. Matt Wackowicz was near the edge of the stream channel and still carrying his two children when he lost his footing and fell into the maelstrom. William Boyatt tried to help, but he too was pulled down. Mrs. Wackowicz saw her family being carried away and in a burst of hysterical frenzy, leaped in after them.All the other motorists made it to safety and could only watch helplessly as boulders the size of automobiles and logs nearly 40 feet long came crashing down the mountainside. The force of the Galena Creek flood washed out more than a quarter-mile of the highway in just minutes. Search parties were on the scene in less than half an hour; six of the rescued motorists were injured and required hospitalization for their injuries. Armed with pitchforks, shovels, probes and flashlights, rescue units searched the silt-filled canyon for the missing victims. Despite their efforts, no one was found. TragedyIndicative of the flash flood’s magnitude, Nevada Highway Patrol Officer Neil Lunt reported that the flow down Galena Creek had left debris 15-feet high on the scoured canyon walls. William Boyatt, Mrs. Wackowicz and the two children did not survive the ordeal, but hours later Matt Wackowicz was discovered battered and in shock, wandering around near the Callahan Ranch. Incredibly, he had tumbled nearly two miles down a mountain in a rampaging torrent and survived. The Nevada State Journal had been advocating a flood control plan for the Mount Rose watershed since 1946. Ironically, the day before this disaster, Nevada Sen. Alan Bible was in Washington, D.C., ironing out House and Senate differences in the Washoe Project Bill, which included major flood protection for the affected area. The danger of even distant thunderstorms should never be underestimated by anyone hiking or camping in the rugged Sierra Nevada. A storm cell may be miles away, but an intense downpour upstream can suddenly turn narrow canyons into rushing rivers. When it comes to flash floods in the mountains or desert, the sage advice of old timers should still be heeded: “When storm clouds gather over the hills, head for high ground.” Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears monthly in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” and “Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2” are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at email@example.com.