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A snowed-in Southland

Travelers are trapped at the Grapevine; I-5 is shut indefinitely. More snow, rain on the way.

January 25, 2008|Amanda Covarrubias and Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writers

A fierce winter storm left the Southland's mountain regions battered and snow-crusted Thursday, and hundreds of motorists found themselves stranded along Interstate 5 in the Tejon Pass after public safety officials ordered the key artery closed indefinitely as they braced for yet another icy tempest.

Frustrated commuters and truckers spent Wednesday night and Thursday morning trapped in the notorious Grapevine area north of Los Angeles before the California Highway Patrol finally cleared them to move in the early afternoon. Some residents of lower mountain elevations were snowed in, while heavy rains caused traffic accidents and minor flooding in Southern California lowlands.

"We just had to park there and sleep," said trucker Ted Dale, who was snowed in Wednesday night near Gorman. He was heading from Los Angeles to Seattle with a load of pineapples Wednesday night when the CHP ordered him to stop his 18-wheeler on the freeway. "There was no place to turn around."

About 30 passengers on a Greyhound bus heading from Southern California to Sacramento were forced to sleep in the vehicle overnight in the middle of the freeway. They were still stranded in Gorman 24 hours later because their driver had reached his limit on the number of hours he was allowed to operate the vehicle, and no fresh drivers could reach them to take over, the passengers said.

"This is worse than jail," said passenger Ilario Cazarez, a dance promoter from Los Angeles who was trying to make his way to Portland.

About 70,000 motorists travel through the serpentine Grapevine each day. Closure of the the state's major north-south artery caused major traffic headaches.

In addition to causing traffic mayhem, snow forced scientists at Mount Wilson Observatory to shut down their telescopes as staff pulled out snowplows that spent last winter in storage.

In another strange climate turn late Thursday night, the National Weather Service issued two tornado warnings for southwest Los Angeles County, including Malibu, Pacific Palisades and the Topanga area. The weather service said a strong rotating thunderstorm was spotted about 9 p.m. over the eastern half of Malibu, moving north-northeast at about 20 mph.

Much earlier in the day, Los Angeles County saw light snowfall as low as 3,000 feet, with up to a foot sticking at 3,500 feet and 18 inches sticking at 4,500 to 5,500 feet, according to Stuart Seto, a weather specialist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. Nearly 2 feet of snow fell in the Lockwood Valley.

Forecasters expected another 1 to 2 feet of snow to fall above 4,000 feet by tonight with a few inches falling between 2,500 and 4,000 feet. The mountains of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties can expect 5 to 10 inches of rain; coastal and valley areas 2 to 5 inches.

This week's snow is a product of cold storms moving south from the Gulf of Alaska and is expected to raise precipitation totals closer to normal annual levels, said state climatologist Michael Anderson. Last year, the Southland experienced its worst dry spell in more than a century.

Now a tropical storm laden with moist air is headed north from Mexico. It is likely to drop rain and snow in the mountains this weekend and drive up snow totals, Anderson said.

In the San Bernardino National Forest on Thursday, ski resorts were basking under several feet of powder.

"It's a winter wonderland right now, awesome conditions, perfect packed powder and more on the way," said Chris Riddle, director of marketing at Big Bear Mountain Resorts, which got 10 inches of snow Thursday.

Even non-skiers can appreciate the benefits of what is shaping up to be a normal winter, Riddle said.

"Fresh snow in Southern California is kind of like the Holy Grail," he said. "It's good for skiing, great for the forest; helps replenish the water table. It's good for all of us."

Back in the town of Castaic, where truckers gathered en masse to wait for Interstate 5 to reopen, Arturo Sarabia, 44, of Los Angeles was buying coffee and pastries. After spending the night in the cab of their big rigs, some truckers couldn't start their engines in the morning because it was so cold. Others found that their brakes had frozen.

"For me it was OK," said Sarabia, who was hauling produce to the San Francisco Bay Area from Los Angeles. "I had a heater and everything, and I left my truck running all night long."

Along California 138, which connects to Interstate 5 near Gorman, about half a dozen truckers had pulled over Thursday morning, waiting for the CHP to reopen the freeway.

Shane Nadarevic, 25, of New York, who was carrying a load of graphics equipment from Dallas to San Francisco, passed the time by sleeping in his truck.

He said CHP officers had come by that morning with hot soup and snacks, and he was taking the delay in stride.

"It's a job," Nadarevic said. "You can't really expect everything to go your way."

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amanda.covarrubias@la times.com

molly.hennessy-fiske@la times.com

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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