Western Wallop: Snow, Rain & Wind

January 5, 2008 7:46:01 AM PST
A storm that pummeled California with gale-force winds and heavy rains was forecast to drop a thick blanket of snow on the Sierra Nevada on Saturday and keep thousands of people from their homes in mudslide-prone areas.

Flights were grounded and a major highway was closed as gusts reached 80 mph Friday during the second wave of an arctic storm that sent trees crashing onto houses, cars and roads and cut power from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Central Valley.

Residents in Orange County canyons that were scorched by wildfires last fall, making them susceptible to mudslides, nervously watched weather reports to learn when the winds and showers would give way to the fierce gusts and heavy downpours forecast for the area.

"The rains haven't been too intense over it yet, but it's going to be a stormy night," Ted MacKechnie, a National Weather Service forecaster, said early Saturday.

About 3,000 residents in Williams, Harding, Modjeska and Silverado canyons were told to leave their homes by 7 p.m. Friday, Orange County fire Capt. Mike Blawn said. Deputies drove through the canyons with bullhorns announcing the order as darkness fell.

"We don't take these evacuation orders lightly. We do everything we can to make sure they're necessary," Blawn said. "The thing with debris flows, mudslides and flash floods is that you can't see them coming."

A voluntary evacuation was in effect at an apartment complex northwest of downtown Los Angeles because of flooding and a small mudslide.

Flash flood warnings were issued late Friday for most of Los Angeles County and all of southeastern Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. Riverside and San Bernardino counties deployed swift-water rescue teams in case torrential rains brought flash floods and mudslides.

Homeowners in Southern California stacked sandbags and hay bales around their homes while residents in the low-lying areas of the Central Valley piled sandbags to barricade their homes from streams and creeks that forecasters warned might swell.

The state opened its emergency operations center Friday morning to coordinate storm response, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he had spoken with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff by phone.

The National Guard said it had personnel on standby, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection dispatched inmate crews in Northern California's Butte, Glenn and Placer counties to clear debris from roadways, spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

The agency also deployed swift-water rescue teams in Butte, Placer and Riverside counties to handle torrential rains that might bring flash floods and mudslides.

In the Sierra National Forest, a frantic daylong search for three missing members of a Clovis family ended just after nightfall when rescuers found them in good condition with three other hikers who had apparently gotten trapped in the woods after the storm hit.

Forecasters expected the storm to dump as much as 10 feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada, where a blizzard warning was downgraded Friday evening to a winter storm warning.

Lake Tahoe was forecast to get between 1 to 2 feet of snow, and the Sierra foothills could get some light accumulation when a third, colder storm moves into the region Saturday.

"It's going to be a mess for travelers," said Chris Smallcomb, a weather service meteorologist. "We expect the road conditions will be hazardous if not impossible."

Friday evening, the California Department of Transportation closed Interstate 80 across the Sierra, the main east-west link between Northern California and Nevada.

The Red Cross set up a 200-bed shelter in Truckee for stranded motorists, as well as a shelter in Butte County.

Air travelers saw their flight plans put on hold when airlines delayed or canceled flights in Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area.

About 600,000 people from the Bay Area to the Central Valley were in the dark early Saturday, down from about 1.5 million the day before. Crews worked to restore power, but it could be days before all the lights are on, Pacific Gas & Electric officials said.

Howling winds, pelting rain and heavy snow took its heaviest toll Friday on Northern California, where trucks flipped on interstates.

The huge storm also toppled trees and cut power to thousands of residents in Washington and Oregon.

"A huge tree, over 100 years old, just fell across the house. It just wrecked the whole thing," said Faye Reed, whose daughter Teenia owns the damaged home north of Sacramento. "They won't be able to live in it. The whole ceiling fell in, and now it's raining inside."