Arctic Blast Hits California

Westbound traffic moves slowly across the Richmond San Rafael Bridge Friday, Jan. 4, 2008 in San Rafael, Calif. The bridge had been temporarily closed in both directions, with strong winds being blamed for causing a handful of accidents. (AP Photo/San Francisco Chronicle, Kim Komenich)
AP Photo/San Francisco Chronicle
A fierce arctic storm pounded California Friday with heavy rain, whipping winds and threats to drench mudslide-prone canyons already charred by wildfire.

Power already was knocked out to hundreds of thousands of residents, and the California Highway Patrol encouraged drivers to stay off the roads. Truckers were told to hunker down in blizzard-like conditions over mountain passes in the Sierra Nevada, and even some ski resorts closed.

Residents of burn areas such as the Malibu Hills and Orange County's Santiago Canyon Friday braced for the prospect of mud slides and rapid debris flows as three back-to-back storms took aim at the region.

L.A. County Fire Captain Bob Goldman spoke to CBS News warning, "that water's gonna come down in large volumes at high velocity and it's going to pick up anything in its path and that will be burned bush, trees, limbs, cars, couches."

The first of the three storms had been expected Thursday afternoon or evening but moved more slowly than anticipated and finally reached the Southland late Friday morning, reports CBS News station KCBS-TV.

"This could be the most significant rainfall across the Southland since January 2005," the NWS said in an advisory.

Authorities warned truckers traveling in blizzard-like conditions over mountain passes in the Sierra Nevada to hunker down, and some ski resorts closed because of hazardous conditions.

"It's a whiteout here," said Neil Erasmus, general manager of Ice Lake Lodge and Rainbow Lodge in Soda Springs. "We're plowing and grooming, plowing and grooming to keep us from being buried in."

Forecasters said the mountains could see 10 feet of snow by storms end. A trio of storms was expected throughout the state through the weekend.

Winds howled in the mountain areas, gusting up to 85 miles an hour, and in the Sacramento Valley, gusts topped 65 miles an hour, the strongest in a decade. CBS News correspondent Sandra Hughes reports that winds in mountain passes are reportedly gusting around 150 miles an hour - as high as a category four hurricane.

The California Highway Patrol cautioned drivers and encouraged them to stay off the roads. Parts of highways from the Sacramento area to the San Francisco Bay Area were closed because of debris blocking lanes. Ferry service in the San Francisco Bay was interrupted, as well.

"It isn't the weather that causes these collisions, it's the way people drive in them," said Sgt. Les Bishop, a spokesman for California Highway Patrol. "It's no secret that we've got a major storm rolling in, and it's everybody's responsibility to drive in a safe manner."

Discarded Christmas trees have been blown into the streets of San Francisco. Scaffoldings have toppled and garbage bins are overturned. Broken tree limbs are scattered across neighborhood streets.

Power was knocked out to hundreds of thousands of residents across Northern California, from the Bay Area to the Central Valley, creating problems on the freeways and causing delays at the airports.

"Because of the strong winds and heavy rains, restoration is taking longer than normal," said Darlene Chiu, a spokeswoman for Pacific Gas and Electric.

Homeowners rushed to stack sandbags around houses, and scurried to stock up on last-minute provisions.

"People were waiting in line for shopping carts," said Barbara Sholle, of Mammoth Lakes. Sholle went to the supermarket after receiving a call from the eastern Sierra ski town's reverse-911 system. She waited an hour to pay for her groceries amid a crush of residents.

In Southern California, the storm was gathering strength off the coast and was expected to strike the region by mid-afternoon, National Weather Service forecaster Andrew Rorke said.

"We're watching it really blossom on satellite," he said.

The storm was expected to pound Southern California with 2-4 inches of rain overnight in the valleys, with 6 inches possible in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and up to 12 inches overnight in the south-facing mountains from Ventura County south to San Diego.

"The last rain we had, it all went under my foundation and I don't like that. It was flowing under my house," said Cindy Darling, a receptionist at the Lake Arrowhead Chamber of Commerce who got sandbags from the local fire department to put above her house. "Everything up here's on a hill, so you have to do something."

Authorities in Orange County issued a voluntary evacuation order for residents of fire-scarred Modjeska and Silverado canyons beginning Friday afternoon. The order also calls for the mandatory evacuation of large animals from the mudslide-prone canyons, where 15 homes burned last fall in a 28,000-acre wildfire.

NWS forecasters warned that flooding threatens not just areas denuded by wildfire.

"This system could bring significant flooding concerns to other areas of Southern and Central California in addition to the burn areas," according to one NWS advisory. "The extended period of heavy rain will likely cause considerable urban and small stream flooding, with the potential for life-threatening flash flooding," KCBS reported.

Ocean tides were expected to swell to 30 feet, prompting the U.S. Coast Guard to caution boaters to remain in port.

No planes were taking off or landing at Sacramento International Airport because of high winds, but the airport remained open, said spokeswoman Gina Swankie.

The U.S. Forest Service issued an avalanche warning for Mount Shasta, in the Cascade Range in far Northern California.

"If you don't have to go out this weekend, it might be a nice weekend to stay at home after the holidays," said Frank McCarton, chief deputy director of the California Office of Emergency Services.

The state opened its emergency operations center Friday morning to coordinate storm response.

Riverside and San Bernardino counties have deployed swift-water rescue teams in case torrential rains bring flash floods and mudslides.

Several ski resorts weren't taking any chances, with Heavenly Mountain Resort at South Lake Tahoe, Alpine Meadows Ski Area in Tahoe City and Mt. Rose Ski Resort near Reno shutting down for the day.

"It's just really, really windy and we don't feel it's safe conditions for our operators or the public," Alpine Meadows spokeswoman Laura Ryan said.

Snow began falling in Tuolumne Meadows Thursday night, and a steady rain was pelting the Yosemite Valley by Friday morning, Gediman said.

Residents and local officials from Sacramento to Manteca planned to patrol the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta during high tide midday Friday to watch for levee breaks, but weren't predicting major floods, said Ron Baldwin, director of emergency operations for San Joaquin County.

"We're going to have to keep an eye on the water and the high tides but we're hopeful we can get through this without any problems," Baldwin said. "That said, no one's going home."

As the storms barreled into the West, a freeze in the East was subsiding. Florida's citrus growers might have been spared major damage, but it will be Saturday or later before strawberry farmers
know the extent of their losses.

A serious freeze would have been devastating to the Florida's citrus trees, already struggling from years of diseases and hurricanes. But most groves are in central and South Florida, where temperatures hovered in high 20s and low 30s. Trees can be ruined when temperatures fall to 28 degrees for four hours.

"It could have been far, far worse," said Terry McElroy, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

At Bill Baggs Cape Florida state park in Key Biscayne, iguanas were falling out of trees Thursday. The cold-blooded reptiles go into a sort of hibernation when temperatures get too low, even if
they are perched in branches. Most woke up when the weather warmed later in the day.

The animals are not native to Florida and are considered a nuisance, park officials told The Miami Herald.
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