More evacuations ordered as new storm hits California

Thursday, January 21, 2010

LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE, Calif. -- A third powerful Pacific storm pounded California with heavy rain and snow Wednesday, forcing evacuations of hundreds of homes below wildfire-scarred mountains, shutting a major interstate and unleashing lightning strikes on two airliners.

Fierce winds howled along the coast and in the mountains, and forecasters warned of rainfall rates as high as 1 1/2 inches an hour on soil already saturated from two days of wild weather that caused urban street flooding in coastal cities, spawned a damaging tornado and toppled trees, killing two people.

Despite stern pleas from authorities and door-to-door calls by police officers and sheriff's deputies, some residents refused to comply with evacuation orders issued for Los Angeles-area foothill communities below the steep San Gabriel Mountains where 250 square miles of forest burned in a summer wildfire.

Rick and Starr Frazier put their faith in concrete barriers and a 2-foot-high wall of sandbags on the perimeter of their home in La Canada Flintridge.

"Look at our house, we're pretty well fortified here," Starr Frazier said. "If any rain or mud or anything comes down, it'll be blocked by our barricades and we're very well stocked with food and water."

When they told Los Angeles County deputies they weren't leaving, the deputies asked them to fill out forms stating they'd been advised of the danger. They also were warned it might not be possible to rescue them.

While most others in the Fraziers' community appeared to be complying, officials in nearby Los Angeles reported only about 40 percent compliance by residents of 262 homes in that jurisdiction.

Police chief Charlie Beck sternly urged the rest to go.

"We're not doing this because your carpet is going to get wet; we're doing it because your life is at risk," Beck told a televised news conference.

Steady rain was expected to continue into the evening, followed by another wave of rain Thursday into Friday.

Two Southwest Airlines aircraft were struck by lightning Wednesday morning after reaching their arrival gates at Burbank's Bob Hope Airport, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said.

Two people on one plane reported feeling numb and were taken to a hospital, he said.

The Grapevine stretch of the state's backbone Interstate 5 was closed due to snow and ice in 4,100-foot-high Tejon Pass north of Los Angeles. Vehicles were to be escorted down from the pass by Highway Patrol officers.

Northern California appeared to be handling the storm relatively well, but an evacuation order was issued for 50 homes as a central coast river rose near low-lying Felton Grove in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Warnings for hazardous conditions were posted in many other parts of the state, but the concern was extreme in Southern California, where vast areas scorched by wildfires have been denuded of vegetation that would normally capture or slow runoff.

The storms were testing months of preparations in a string of burn-area neighborhoods from northeastern Los Angeles through La Crescenta, Glendale, La Canada Flintridge and Altadena.

County and city officials decided Tuesday to order evacuation of hundreds of homes because flood-control debris basins protecting some areas were already full or had little room left.

A recent U.S. Geological Survey emergency assessment of the post-fire danger noted the history of tragedy in Southern California from so-called debris flows: 30 killed and 483 homes destroyed in a 1934 flow in the Los Angeles-area foothills; 16 killed in 2003 flows to the east in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Glendale police Sgt. Tom Lorenz said the current threat could be as bad as the 1934 disaster.

"Basically, a 20-foot wall of mud came down through this area," he said.

Despite a visit from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, homeowners remained in the Alpine Village area of Big Tujunga Canyon. Thirty-seven-year resident Magdalena Kuehne said she and her husband would leave "when rocks start rolling down this street. Now it's only a little mud and water. That's not too dangerous."

In nearby Riverwood Ranch, smoke wafting from chimneys, cars in driveways and horses in barns indicated residents there hadn't evacuated either.

Much of the week's concern focused on Paradise Valley, a neighborhood on the upper reaches of winding Ocean View Boulevard in La Canada Flintridge offering spectacular panoramas of Los Angeles.

Most people there appeared willing to go.

"Hi, how you guys doing, are you getting ready to leave? Good," Deputy R. Lavan said to an elderly woman who opened her door just a crack. She assured them she had a ride and a friend to stay with.

Mike Thomas shoveled several feet of mud from his driveway before leaving.

"The preparations have been pretty well done so I think everything will be OK," he said.

His wife, Magda, drove off before him.

"Don't forget to take your medications," she said. "Good luck, see you later."

Many had evacuated before, including during the big fire, and took it in stride.

Lynn Thompson, a resident for 32 years, had barricaded her front door and windows with plywood and already taken family photos to her daughter's house. But she waited for a load of laundry to dry before departing.

"Sometimes you have to pay big bucks for these views, both emotionally and financially," she said.

Farther east along the San Gabriels, evacuations were urged in canyon areas of the city of Sierra Madre below wildfire-scarred mountainsides.

"There are some people who understand the danger ... there are others that want to take the chance and stay with their homes," city spokeswoman Elisa Weaver said.

Elsewhere in the state, authorities advised of considerable avalanche danger on steep, north-facing slopes of the central Sierra Nevada after as much as 30 inches of snow fell since Sunday. Danger was moderate elsewhere.

Blizzard conditions cut visibility to near zero on U.S. Interstate 80 over Donner Summit and blowing snow made driving dangerous on the route between Sacramento and Reno, Nev.

In Orange County's Sunset Beach, Nicolette Kimberling, 35, and husband Kenn, 37, helped her elderly grandmother clean up from the tornado that hit her seafront home on Tuesday. Gladys Myers said she was sitting in her bedroom when she heard a roar and her windows exploded.

"Now we've got to weather the rest of these storms," Kenn Kimberling said.

In Arizona, officials warned residents to prepare for up to 3 feet of snow in the north on Thursday and Friday, up to 4 inches of rain in the Phoenix area and 2 inches of rain around Tucson. Travel on Interstates 40 and 17 was slow after the roads were closed overnight.

Associated Press writers Daisy Nguyen and Robert Jablon in Los Angeles, Juliet Williams in Sacramento, Sudhin Thanawala in San Francisco and Gillian Flaccus in Orange County contributed to this report.

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