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Jet Stream Brings a Bit of Canada to California

Weather: Cold air from the north sends temperatures--and snow levels--plunging. Chilly conditions are expected to remain through the week.

February 26, 1996|RICHARD C. PADDOCK and GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It was not quite North Dakota, but much of California seemed like it was in a deep freeze Sunday as intermittent showers teamed up with the coldest weather of the season to drop snow as low as 2,000 feet and blanket parts of the state with temperatures that felt like record-breaking lows.

The cold snap, caused by an unusual jet stream moving south from Canada, left high temperatures at about the spot on the thermometer where Southern California's lows ordinarily hover. It scattered two inches of snow across the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys and into the foothills of Glendale and Burbank, dropped hail on parts of Orange County, and pushed temperatures in some inland areas to below freezing.

The same was true in the Bay Area; in San Francisco, the weather was so cold that motorists had to scrape ice off their windshields Sunday morning.

Snow--described as "whiteout" conditions by the California Highway Patrol--closed the Grapevine stretch of Interstate 5 late Sunday, but there was no estimate how long it would remain closed.

"The coldest weather of the season is here," said meteorologist Robb Kaczmarek of WeatherData Inc. in Wichita, Kan., where Sunday's high of 75 degrees was almost 20 degrees above the high at the Los Angeles Civic Center.

The cold temperatures were expected to remain through the week, and Southern California also could see showers at least today, with a break Tuesday before rain was expected to resume Wednesday. "It will be really unsettled," Kaczmarek said.

On Angeles Crest Highway, one woman was killed and five other people injured, one critically, when their Chevy Blazer plunged about 150 feet down a canyon as they traveled the rain and snow-slicked road near the Chilao Campground.

For a time, the CHP was escorting cars in small groups along Interstate 5, but stopped when snow closed the Grapevine route. "It's been getting worse all day and the public just won't slow down," spokeswoman Shirley Gaines said.

And new snows in the Reno-Tahoe area delayed travelers on Interstate 80 over Donner Summit, backing up traffic late Sunday for about 30 miles. Caltrans spokeswoman Pat Miller blamed the massive jam-up on accidents, weather and skiers returning home from Tahoe resorts.

If the chilly temperatures and threatening skies kept many indoors Sunday, the weather was as welcome to skiers as discounted lift tickets.

Storms earlier in the season had been unusually warm, bringing rain instead of snow to the high elevations, but the coldest snap of the year meant a low moisture content that created the kind of light powder that skiers love. And continued cold temperatures promised to keep the snow in excellent condition. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area reported a temperature of 6 degrees at sunrise, going up to 18 by midmorning.

Skiers celebrated storms that dropped as much as 12 feet of snow in the past week in parts of the Sierra Nevada. At Alpine Meadows Ski Area near Lake Tahoe, spokesman Robert Olmer said recent storms have been so prolific that this season's snowfall has already matched the 286-inch record set by the same time last year. "It's pretty awesome," he said. "In the past week, we've had 9 to 12 feet. It's light and dry--snow at its very best."

Farther south in the Sierra, Mammoth Mountain reported 7 to 10 feet of new snow in the past week, 10 inches of it in the last 24 hours. "It's incredible," said skier Rayni Chase. "We've received so much snow in the past week I can't believe it."

And snow could even be seen along local mountains and hillsides, sprinkling high elevations above La Crescenta and Glendale, where some areas reported as much as 6 inches of snow.

As the storm moved east, it dropped occasional showers mixed with pea-sized hailstones over parts of the San Fernando Valley, especially northwest of Burbank.

Kaczmarek of WeatherData, the Kansas firm that provides weather information to The Times, attributed the unusually cold temperatures to a "fairly substantial" upper-level disturbance that has pushed the jet stream much farther south than normal, to the Southland and into Baja California.

"The farther north it is, the warmer it is [locally,]" he said. "But at this time, the jet stream wind flow is basically coming straight south from Canada."

The result has been temperatures that are 10 to 20 degrees below the norm, and which appear poised to break some records. While the Civic Center low of 46 degrees Sunday was far warmer than the date's record low of 35 degrees, set in 1890, the high--55--hovered just two degrees above the 1913 record for the date's chilliest high temperature.

The weather pattern, which put some inland communities in a deep freeze, was expected to last several days, Kaczmarek said. So, he added, were the showers.

Though the weather led to a slight increase in accidents, the CHP said the number of collisions was far below those of a weekday rush hour. And no serious rain-caused accidents were reported.

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