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Cold takes toll on growers, traffic

Farmers begin assessing the damage to fruit, which could hit half a billion dollars, and ice causes a freeway pileup.

January 15, 2007|Rich Connell, Henry Weinstein and Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writers

After two long nights battling to save his citrus and avocado crop from a record-setting deep freeze, Jim Churchill left his Ojai farm at 4 a.m. Sunday and headed for the Hollywood Farmers Market, hoping to find customers for his surviving Pixie tangerines.

With the temperature already in the 20s and continuing to drop, the news from his and other orchards was not good. As much as half a billion dollars' worth of California oranges, lemons and other produce was probably ruined, an industry spokesman said.

"We lost our entire crop of avocados, five acres," Churchill reported at midday, trying to focus on the brisk business at his fruit stall near Ivar Avenue and Sunset Boulevard. "This was going to be our first good harvest in seven years ... then it all froze."

The dry, biting cold front iced over freeways, drove nearly 1,000 people into Southern California emergency shelters, left one rescuer hospitalized and shattered decades-old weather records from Los Angeles to Lancaster.

But growers like Churchill suffered the most.

Initial estimates by representatives of the state's $1.3billion-a-year citrus industry placed losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

"We have suffered significant damage," said Joel Nelsen, president of Citrus Mutual, a Tulare County-based trade group, comparing current damages with a $700-million crop loss in 1998.

Thousands of California growers were out Sunday cutting fruit and assessing spoilage, he said. "We are finding good fruit. We are not dead in the woods yet."

Agriculture officials, mobilized by a state of emergency declared Friday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, were scrambling to calculate losses and provide farmers and affected communities with federal disaster assistance, said Greg Renick, spokesman for the governor's Office of Emergency Services.

The potential effect on prices and availability of fruit was not immediately clear. One state official said freeze warnings and quick harvesting by farmers may have helped soften the blow.

"Right now there's sufficient inventory" in packing and storage houses, said Nancy Lungren, deputy secretary for public affairs for the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

Most Southern Californians had to endure little more than a "brrr"-factor of inconvenience Sunday. Temperatures continued to dip for up to an hour after sunrise in many areas, setting record lows under incongruously brilliant skies.

In downtown Los Angeles, it was 36 degrees at 7:30 a.m., breaking a low-temperature record for the date from 75 years ago. Other new records were 26 degrees in Burbank, 31 in Long Beach, 36 in Westwood and 10 in Palmdale.

In Lancaster, Sunday's low was 3 degrees, seven degrees below a 1963 record for the same date.

"It's freezing," Shonte'e Pettus, an attendant at a Lancaster homeless shelter, said Sunday afternoon. "Even now during the day, it feels like it's only about 25 degrees out there."

The shelter was filled to capacity, and people who normally would be ushered out during the day were being allowed to remain inside and huddle around electric heaters, she said. "On the streets and curbs, where there's usually water running, it's all ice," Pettus said.

More than 900 people were logged into emergency shelters at National Guard armories in the region.

The subfreezing temperatures contributed to at least one nighttime pileup on the San Diego Freeway in Sherman Oaks that sent a firefighter to the hospital.

Several drivers lost control of their vehicles about 1:20 a.m. on a quarter-inch thick patch of ice that formed when a sprinkler spilled water on the roadway.

A 34 year-old Los Angeles firefighter who was trying to help a motorist was hit by another skidding car and pinned against a fire engine.

The rescuer, whose name was not released, suffered a broken nose and facial trauma and was briefly unconscious, said Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey. He was in fair condition Sunday afternoon at UCLA Medical Center. Several motorists were treated for minor injuries at the crash scene.

National Weather Service freeze warnings, meaning temperatures could dip below 28 degrees for two hours or more, were expected to remain in effect until at least this morning for Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. In Ojai, lows were expected to fall to 26 by this morning.

Elsewhere, morning temperatures were expected to notch upward with lows in the 30s over much of Southern California for the next several days, said weather specialist Stuart Seto.

Nelsen, of the citrus growers group, said it would take a week to fully quantify the scope of the crop damage.

Fruit weakens as it is repeatedly exposed to freezing temperatures. "We are not through with this event," he said. "We have another night or two to go. The damage just starts to accelerate."

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