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Orange County

Trees, Power Poles Fall Amid Hurricane-Force Gusts in O.C.

Morning commutes are snarled as county's rail service is disrupted. Fire danger still high.

January 07, 2003|Janet Wilson and Mai Tran | Times Staff Writers

Hurricane-force Santa Ana winds pummeled Orange County and much of the Southland on Monday, uprooting trees, snapping hundreds of power poles and snarling morning commutes.

An estimated 250,000 customers in Central and Southern California lost power, most of them briefly, according to Southern California Edison, but others will not have electricity restored for three days.

Rail service between the Inland Empire and Orange County was halted for hours after a commuter train hit a string of power lines.

Hardest hit appeared to be Orange, where 47 power poles collapsed -- some because of the train -- a car overturned, and a four-alarm fire destroyed a business. Poles dangled, held up only by tangled wires.

"It looked like a major earthquake or tornado had hit," said Edison spokeswoman Jane Brown.

The winds, which topped 100 mph in Fremont Canyon in the Santa Ana Mountains, were expected to last at least through this morning.

Winds high above Utah and Arizona combined with ground winds over the Great Basin in Utah, then pushed across the California desert into the mountains ringing the Los Angeles area.

The air funneled through narrow canyons and exploded out the other side.

"Imagine a traffic jam where all the cars slow down as they go into a tunnel, then speed up coming out the other side," said Jeremy Nelson, a meteorologist with Weather Central, which provides forecasts to The Times.

"Everything came together nicely to give us just about the strongest winds we can have," said Miguel Miller, a National Weather Service meteorologist in San Diego. The service does not keep records of area winds, but old-timers said they were the strongest in decades.

"It was a corker," said Orange County historian Jim Sleeper. "It was strong enough to take the feathers off a duck."

Across inland cities and canyon communities, the winds lifted rooftops, blew out windows, uprooted trees and smashed patio furniture.

In one of Monday's more spectacular accidents, winds toppled a power line onto railroad tracks on Batavia Street in Orange. A motorist waiting at the intersection escaped injury when he got out of his car after a slow-moving train pulled down several wires. The train wrapped one line around the car, dragged it several feet and flipped it upside down into opposite lanes. Nearly two dozen power poles were downed before the train could be stopped.

"They fell one by one, like dominoes," said Rosa Ruelas, 30, who lives on Batavia Street. "We looked out the window all night because I didn't know if the poles were going to fall on us."

Dozens of traffic lights were also out, creating a commuter mess. Late Monday afternoon, more downed lines disrupted signal lights along Westminster Avenue in Seal Beach, forcing a closure of about two miles of road, a police spokesman said.

A downed line was also blamed for sparking a four-alarm fire in the 1300 block of Collins Avenue in Orange about 10:45 a.m. Dozens of pallets of cardboard boxes at a furniture storage facility burned.

"The FedEx guy pounded on my door and said, 'Lady, hurry and sign. I'm out of here,' " said Carolyn Carr, 41, of Santa Ana, who owns Carr Plumbing and Contractors. "I looked out my window, saw a huge cloud of thick smoke and grabbed my laptop."

Employees of several firms who ran outside had to dodge flying boxes. "They were all over, like fireball kites," said Marvin Stokes, 39, of Banning, who works at a neighboring business.

No one was injured, and the blaze was controlled in about 30 minutes. A fire off Santiago Canyon Road near Modjeska Canyon was also quickly extinguished, with no injuries or structural damage.

Atop Modjeska Grade Road, Jim Carter and his family slept fitfully because of the roaring winds. Their meter registered a gust of 106 mph shortly after 2 a.m. -- the highest reading it can take.

About 2:30 a.m., state police shone a flashlight in their bedroom window to tell them there was a small building blocking the road. It was the roof of their horse corral, which had blown 80 feet. The only horse in the corral, a paint named Blue, was unharmed but shaken.

"He put his head on my wife's shoulder and wouldn't move it," Carter said.

Lack of electricity forced at least three schools to close. Yorba Linda Middle School in Yorba Linda and Canyon High School in Anaheim Hills closed Monday, but were scheduled to reopen today.

Santiago Middle School on Santiago Canyon Road in Orange will probably remain closed for another two days.

Also in Yorba Linda, a 91-year-old tree at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace was damaged. The California pepper tree planted by Nixon's father had one of its main branches torn and left hanging, said Kevin Cartwright, director of institutional programs.

In Laguna Beach, a massive eucalyptus tree fell across all four lanes of Glenneyre Street about 7:30 a.m. And in Placentia, a small oil rig near Roskelly and Edwards ways was blown through a wall about 12:30 a.m., said Police Lt. Bob Jones. The rig, in the middle of a new housing tract, crushed an sport-utility vehicle and damaged two other vehicles. No one was injured.

Edgy firefighters were on full alert Monday night because the high winds could combine with expected low humidity to create ideal fire weather.

"That's an evil combination," said the National Weather Service's Miller.

*

Times staff writer Daniel Yi contributed to this report.

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