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Winter storm prompts closures, rescues in Southern California

Video: In one Ventura County FD response, a firefighter was lowered from a helicopter via a cable to the roof of a stranded driver’s car


Screen grab/Ventura County Fire Department

By Hayley Smith, Rosanna Xia, Ruben Vives, Brennon Dixson, Paloma Esquivel and Roger Vincent
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — A powerful winter storm carving a path through Southern California was expected to weaken Saturday, leaving heaps of sleet, snow and record-setting rain in its wake.

Reports of power outages, grounded flights and road closures rang out through the Southland as the plume of frigid moisture traveled a southeastern path. Lightning prompted the closure of several beaches from Los Angeles to San Diego — including all beaches in L.A. County — where officials warned of potential strikes along the coast and over the ocean through midnight.

Rescue crews came to the aid of several people, including a 61-year-old man hoisted to safety from a dirt island in the Tujunga wash Saturday morning and two homeless men stranded similarly amid water that had risen in Hansen Dam, the Los Angeles Fire Department said.

Four homeless people, along with four dogs and a cat, were also rescued from a remote area of land within the heavily flooded Sepulveda Basin late Friday night, LAFD said. Two of the people were suffering from hypothermia and transported to a hospital.

The storm, which already transformed Northern California into a winter wonderland, set multiple precipitation records in and around Los Angeles on Friday, including 4.61 inches of rain near Hollywood Burbank Airport — its fifth wettest day ever, according to Rich Thompson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

Daily rainfall records were also set at Los Angeles International Airport, which received 2.04 inches, and in Lancaster with 0.78 inches, Camarillo with 1.43 inches, Oxnard with 2.04 inches and Santa Maria with 2.61 inches, Thompson said, calling it “very impressive stuff.”

The unusual system also dropped heavy snow on mountain areas, especially elevations above 4,500 feet. Mountain High resort in Wrightwood received 65 inches of fresh powder in 24 hours, Thompson said, with the potential for an additional foot Saturday.

However, the brunt of the storm has passed the Los Angeles area, Thompson said.

“Right now, the heaviest rains have moved east of L.A. County. You’re still going to see steady light-to-moderate rain in the morning, but then by this afternoon, it’ll turn more showery,” he said.

Areas such as San Bernardino and San Diego were still “in the thick of it” Saturday morning, but were also expecting a weakening trend later in the day, said Brian Adams, a meteorologist with the weather service in San Diego.

“The system as a whole is kind of moving in an east, southeast trajectory,” he said.

The weakening system spurred a number of dramatic rescues and dangerous situations over the course of its days-long wrath. In Ojai, a rescue helicopter roared over Ladera Ridge Road, north of the Thatcher School, at about 10:30 p.m. Friday, when a woman was trapped in a dip in the road amid rapidly rushing water.

Video shared by the Ventura County Fire Department shows a rescue swimmer dropping down from the helicopter via a long cable, landing on the roof of the car, and guiding the woman out from the driver’s side. She held on tight as the helicopter swung both of them over to dry land, where other firefighters helped receive them.

A call for help went out again 30 minutes later, at about 11 p.m., this time at the mouth of the Ventura River, just past Main Street near downtown Ventura. Two men were stuck on an island that had formed in the middle of the river mouth, as rushing water rose on all sides.

A team of firefighters were able to rescue them with a very, very long ladder, said Jeremy Henderson, battalion chief for the city of Ventura’s fire department. He urged the public on Saturday to remain alert for rising water.

“Don’t go through any moving water, it’s extremely dangerous,” he said. “Just 12 inches can take your vehicle off the road.”

Indeed, a flood watch remains in effect in large swaths of Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Ventura counties through Saturday afternoon, where flooding caused by excessive rainfall continues to be possible. In an abrupt shock Saturday afternoon, all lanes of Topanga Canyon Boulevard had to be closed from Pacific Coast Highway to Grand View Drive due to a hillside that collapsed and spewed mud and tree branches across the road — but officials were able to quickly clean up the mess in about an hour, the California Department of Transportation said.

A rare blizzard warning is also in effect for the mountains of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties until 4 p.m. Saturday, where heavy snow, gusting winds and near-zero visibility are possible.

Still, some Southern Californians reveled in the novel appearance of wintry weather. Rogelio and Anthony Medrano, a father-son duo in Palmdale, immediately rushed out to duel in a snowball fight Saturday before grabbing doughnuts and firewood to relax amid the chill.

In the Ana Verdes Hills neighborhood, Steven Lopez, a 10-year-old, constructed a snowman as tall as himself while his siblings, Chelsea and Brandon, took turns sledding through desert shrubs. Their father, Arnan Lopez, took in the beauty of the snow-covered hilltops.

“Back then we had to drive 2 hours to Big Bear. Now, it’s our backyard,” Lopez said, describing Saturday as “a perfect day.”

Some ski resorts similarly celebrated the snowfall — even as the storm made getting to them difficult or impossible. The roads to and from Big Bear Mountain resorts were closed Saturday, but its Bear Mountain and Snow Summit properties were open to visitors who were in town before the closures.

Things were quieter than usual, with snow falling steadily through the morning, said spokesman Justin Kanton.

“It’s kind of a bubble right now,” Kanton said. “We’re kind of in our own little snow globe.”

Similarly, in Mammoth, U.S. Route 395 has been closed in both directions for two days. But Mammoth Mountain resort was open Saturday, with skiers and snowboarders who were in town before the closures enjoying “really great conditions,” said spokeswoman Lauren Burke.

Since Wednesday, the resort has seen about four-and-a-half to five-and-a-half feet of snow. “The storm has come in really cold, so the snow is fantastic.”

The storm has snarled traffic in other mountain passes, too. Interstate 5 remains closed in the Grapevine area from Tejon Pass to Parker Road due to wintry conditions, Caltrans said. In the city, the northbound lanes of Interstate 5 were closed around Laurel Canyon Boulevard because of flooding.

Other closures in the area include portions of State route 138, as well as State Routes 2 and 39 in the Angeles National Forest, Caltrans said. The storm also brought arriving flights to LAX to a half late Friday night and into Saturday, airport officials said.

“We’re still recovering from the hour-and-a-half ground stop that the FAA issued last night that was affected by bad weather in Los Angeles,” spokeswoman Victoria Spilabotte said Saturday afternoon.

Between midnight and noon Saturday, 37 flights were canceled and another 182 flights were “on a major delay,” she said.

The storm also prompted power outages affecting North Hollywood, Crenshaw, Baldwin Hills, Jefferson Park and other areas, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power said, with an estimated 66,500 customers without service as of 10 a.m. The agency said it could take up to 48 hours to respond and make repairs in some areas.

“While we know this is an extended period of time and a significant inconvenience for our customers, we want to assure everyone affected that we’re working hard to get power restored,” DWP senior assistant general manager Brian Wilbur said in a statement. “The weather, crew safety and the complexity of some repairs related to downed trees will largely determine how quickly we are able to get power restored.”

Southern California Edison’s outage map also showed more than 18,000 customers without power in Southern California, including about 11,400 in L.A. County.

“This storm is widespread and impacting many of SCE’s customers and communities, from Catalina Island to Lake Arrowhead and from the Grapevine to Mammoth,” spokesman Reggie Kumar said.

SCE staged equipment and crews in areas expected to be most impacted by the storm, he said. About 1,000 crew members were in the field working on outages Saturday morning.

Though the system is weakening, officials warned residents to remain vigilant as soggy, snowy and potentially dangerous conditions could persist. In San Diego, two people were rescued Saturday morning from a partially submerged vehicle just north of the San Diego Airport, where lifeguards helped pull the pair to safety.

In Valencia, two motor homes in an RV park were swept into the Santa Clara River shortly after midnight Saturday when an embankment collapsed, according to Sgt. Keith Greene of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriffs’ Station.

Large chunks of land were still seen crumbling into the swollen river Saturday morning, and the area was without power because an electric cable along the embankment had also washed away.

No one was injured, and the area along the riverbank has been evacuated, Greene said, but water levels remain too high to go and recover the two trailer homes.

In other areas, however, conditions were already beginning to change.

Caroline Brown, a 73-year-old Lancaster resident, said she was hoping for heavy rain to spare her from having to go out in the cold and walk her Jack Russell terrier, Luna. But the monster storm was beginning to break, revealing a blue sky.

“It was wonderful,” Brown said of the storm. “We need more of it.”

Brown said she’s hoping for more rain next week when another storm is forecast to hit the area again.

“We’ll take what we can get is what I say,” she said, as she pulled back on Luna’s leash.


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