Hundreds under evacuation orders as new storm hits California, some refuse to leave

By John Rogers, AP
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

More evacuations ordered as new storm hits Calif.

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, knocking out power to thousands and unleashing lightning strikes on two airliners.

Fierce winds howled as forecasters warned of rainfall rates as high as 1½ inches an hour on soil already saturated from two days of wild weather that caused street flooding in coastal cities, spawned a tornado and toppled trees, killing two people.

Even though police officers and sheriff’s deputies were making door-to-door stops, some residents refused to comply with evacuation orders in 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 said they weren’t leaving, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies warned it might not be possible to rescue them and asked them to fill out forms stating they’d been advised of the danger.

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, saying: “We’re not doing this because your carpet is going to get wet; we’re doing it because your life is at risk.”

The neighborhoods’ luck was still holding at nightfall as the heaviest downpours slowly moved east. But forecasters warned of more rain Thursday into Friday with high surf battering the coast.

Los Angeles Fire Chief Millage Peaks said they were “seeing mud in the streets, a significant amount of water flowing out of the hillsides but nothing that has jeopardized any structures or life at this time.”

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 by the Highway Patrol.

Since the beginning of the week, more than 300,000 Southern California Edison customers had lost power. About 13,000 were being restored Wednesday.

In Northern California, 50 homes were ordered evacuated as a central coast river rose near Felton Grove in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but it began to recede late in the day. Warnings for hazardous conditions were posted around the state with extreme concern in the south, 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 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 some of the 28 flood-control debris basins protecting the area were near capacity. County Public Works Director Gail Farber said they were continuing to function as designed but evacuations were a necessary precaution.

A recent U.S. Geological Survey 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 1934 in the Los Angeles-area foothills, and 16 killed in 2003 to the east in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Glendale police Sgt. Tom Lorenz said the current threat could be as bad as 1934, when “a 20-foot wall of mud came down through this area.”

Despite a visit from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, homeowners remained in the Alpine Village area of Big Tujunga Canyon. Magdalena Kuehne, 78, has lived in the Alpine Village area for 37 years. She said she and her husband would leave “when rocks start rolling down this street.”

“Now it’s only a little mud and water,” she said. “That’s not too dangerous.”

As the mayor’s caravan left the area, it had to stop when an unrelated vehicle flipped in the rain on a freeway. A firefighter driving a van at the end of convoy rendered aid until an ambulance came.

In nearby Riverwood Ranch, retiree John Brown, 68, was one of only two people at an evacuation center.

“I brought some papers and stuff to do my 2009 taxes,” he said. “It will be a good way to pass the time.”

Much of the 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.

Lynn Thompson, a 32-year resident who barricaded her front door and windows with plywood and took family photos to her daughter’s house said, “sometimes you have to pay big bucks for these views, both emotionally and financially.”

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

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, Robert Jablon and Raquel Maria Dillon 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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