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Winter's blast costs millions of dollars

Growers expect even greater losses as the forecast calls for more freezing temperatures.

January 13, 2007|Hector Becerra and Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writers

An arctic cold snap rolled into California on Friday, dropping the snow level below 1,000 feet, destroying millions of dollars in crops and leaving a rare dusting of snow in unexpected places, including Montclair, Chino and even downtown Riverside.

Forecasters said it would only get colder this weekend. The National Weather Service predicted record low temperatures in the 30s across the Los Angeles Basin and Orange County, the 20s in parts of the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys and the teens in the Antelope Valley and parts of the Inland Empire.

Because of the potential for sustained below-freezing conditions, the weather service on Friday issued a freeze watch through Sunday morning for the San Fernando, San Gabriel and Santa Clarita valleys as well as the Santa Monica Mountains. Officials urged residents to keep pets inside and consider moving potted plants indoors.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency Friday, ordering the state to make 11 National Guard armories, fairgrounds and other facilities available as emergency centers and for use as shelters for the homeless.

Some social services groups were trying to spread the word to transients and elderly people without heat that they can go to the emergency centers. In Los Angeles, about 1,800 additional shelter beds are available.

The cold snap has already hit the Central Valley hard, with farmers there and in the Southland struggling to protect their crops.

Limoneira Co., Ventura County's largest lemon producer, sustained severe damage to crops in the San Joaquin Valley early Friday and was bracing for more losses Friday night, said senior vice president Alex Teague.

The company lost about 25% of its crop in Porterville on Thursday night and expected to lose the rest of it Friday night, Teague said. The firm has 2,000 acres of lemons in Porterville, and its losses there could reach millions of dollars, Teague said.

Work crews were expecting to patrol Limoneira's 4,500 acres of lemons and avocados in Ventura County throughout Friday night and into tonight, he said. They planned to irrigate trees throughout the night and run wind machines, he said.

But if temperatures drop low enough, all efforts may be futile, said Teague, a fifth-generation rancher.

"If you are at 25 degrees longer than four or five hours, you can mainly try to protect the tree so it will bloom again next year," he said.

Citrus crops were particularly vulnerable to damage, and the California Farm Bureau Federation estimated that 75% of navel oranges and 70% of lemons -- crops worth $1 billion -- are still on the trees. But officials said other crops are also in jeopardy, including artichokes in Monterey County, lettuce in Imperial County and strawberries in Ventura County.

Farmers scurried to fill wind machines with propane and set out orchard heaters before the sun went down. Some were dragging out old smudge pots.

Ventura County strawberry grower Bill Reiman said pockets of cold air Thursday night had damaged some of the delicate crop, although he had no estimate of losses.

Like other farmers, Reiman was heading home at midafternoon Friday to catch a nap, anticipating a long night ahead.

"It's usually one night that's a real threat, and then it's over," he said. This time, he said, Friday night and tonight "are equally threatening. It's ominous."

Forecasters said Friday provided a sample of the cold temperatures and frosty conditions the weekend would bring.

Children at grade schools in Fontana rolled boulder-sized snowballs across the playground Friday, and some residents couldn't believe what they were seeing.

"I thought I was still dreaming," said Tracy Chell, 52, a Fontana resident who woke up to a hailstorm that turned into a flurry of fat snowflakes about 7 a.m.

"Everyone came out to look. I'm a kid at heart, so I was jumping around and dancing."

As flakes of snow landed near downtown Riverside, UC Riverside students tried to remember the last time they had seen snow in the area.

"I think I was in the sixth grade," said 22-year-old Kendrick Hawkins. "It's been a while."

Kelly Redmond, regional climatologist for the Desert Research Institute in Reno, said that, based on weather data going back to 1949, the cold spell was one of the more severe in more than half a century.

It was also unusual because the huge cold-air mass was too far inland to be influenced by moderating coastal winds and the ocean. The result was nearly unadulterated and untamed arctic air, Redmond said.

Jamie Meier, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Oxnard, said record lows are possible tonight and especially overnight Sunday, when downtown Los Angeles could break a cold record.

"The record for Sunday is 37 degrees, and we're forecasting 35 for Sunday," Meier said.

William Patzert, a meteorologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, said the cold snap is particularly curious given that Southern California posted record highs, in the 80s, earlier this week.

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