California Shivers

California's cold snap: Bundled up in bunny slippers in Santa Rosa, Calif., Jan. 12, 2006; icicles in the orange groves in Exeter, Calif., Jan. 13, 2007.
AP/Santa Rosa Democrat/AP
It's no laughing matter – icicles are in the orange groves, people are in shelters, and even birds are huddling together for warmth, in temperatures so cold California's governor has declared an emergency.

California's weather lurched from beach to ski in less than a week as an arctic blast delivered rare snowfalls in low-lying southern cities and put the state's $1 billion citrus industry on alert.

California's citrus groves had at least two nights of record-low temperatures this weekend, and agriculture officials continue to worry about the possibility of extensive destruction of crops.

Counties where most of the state's oranges, lemons and tangerines are grown saw temperatures plummet into the teens to mid-20s both in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday and Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.

"It was a very bad night," said Nancy Lungren, spokeswoman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Damage to citrus groves in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California was "widespread" and "significant," Lungren said. But the full impact would not be known until inspectors had a chance to check fruit picked after the cold snap began Friday.

Friday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an emergency proclamation that made more state funds available to counties coping with cold weather. More than 1,300 people have sought shelter from the subfreezing temperatures at warming centers opened by the California National Guard throughout the state, said Greg Renick, a spokesmen for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

State officials asked fruit packers to keep produce harvested during the freeze off the market for five days so they could check for quality problems and keep damaged fruit off store shelves.

"If it turns to slush, that's bad fruit, and they'll dispose of it," Lungren said.

Citrus growers rushed to pick as much fruit as possible before the cold weather hit. That should keep citrus supplies steady for the next week to ten days, said Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

A freeze watch is expected to remain in effect through Tuesday morning.

Starting Wednesday, cloud cover from the Pacific coast could trap heat and increase temperatures to slightly above freezing, National Weather Service meteorologist Cindy Bean said Sunday.

Farmers said they would continue to burn bonfires, blow warmer air through 30-foot wind machines, and spray trees with warm irrigation water Sunday night.

A severe cold snap can destroy crops, leave hundreds of farmworkers unemployed and have long-term effects if trees are damaged.

The industry took two years to recover from a 1990 freeze that lasted a week, said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, a 2,000-member trade organization. A three-day freeze in December 1998 destroyed 85 percent of California's citrus crop, a loss valued at $700 million.

Officials estimated the value of the 2007 citrus crop still on the trees at $960 million.

Record lows were reported Sunday throughout Southern California, including downtown Los Angeles, which hit 36 degrees, breaking a record in place since 1932. Long Beach hit 31 degrees, beating the record set in 1963. A 3-degree reading in Lancaster, about 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles, shattered the old record of 10 degrees, also set 1963.

In Bakersfield, temperatures tied the record low at 25 degrees, according to the weather service.

So far no deaths have been reported as a result of the cold.

Meanwhile the weather is causing some unusual sights for birdwatchers.

In Gridley, Calif., patches of ice are forcing migratory birds to huddle together in noisy groups.

An estimated 1.5 million birds are sticking together at the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, about 130 miles northeast of San Francisco. That's roughly double the number of birds usually there this time of year.

Naturalists say snow geese, bald eagles, golden eagles and other birds that fly from California to Mexico every year may need extra time to refuel and rest due to the unusually cold temperatures and high winds over the weekend.