Saturated slopes worry California cities

By John Antczak

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 1 2014 9:00 p.m. MST

Santa Barbara County firefighters survey the scene after three sailboats washed ashore in Goleta, Calif., Saturday, March 1, 2014. The storm marked a sharp departure from many months of drought that has grown to crisis proportions for the state’s vast farming industry. However, such storms would have to become common to make serious inroads against the drought, weather forecasters have said.

Santa Barbara News-Press, Mike Eliason, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Saturated mountainsides loomed over foothill communities on Saturday as a storm centered off California rotated bands of rain into a state that sorely needs the moisture but not at such dangerously high rates.

Evacuation orders remained in effect for hundreds of homes in Los Angeles County foothill communities where fires have burned away vegetation that holds soil in place, and bursts of rain caused the mountains to belch occasional debris flows.

The storm marked a sharp departure from many months of drought that has grown to crisis proportions for the state's vast farming industry. However, such storms would have to become common to make serious inroads against the drought, weather forecasters have said.

Officials warned of scattered showers through Saturday night before tapering off past midnight. While the danger was subsiding, they urged residents who left their homes as much as three days earlier to stay away until Sunday morning.

"The good news is that it looks like the storm will pass ... but we still need to evaluate the safety of the area" before people can return home, Assistant Chief Steve Martin of the Los Angeles County Fire Department told a webcast news conference.

The National Weather Service said the storm is forecast to move east over the Rockies and into the Plains and Mississippi Valley through Sunday, bringing a hodgepodge of precipitation. Colorado's ski resorts could see up to 6 inches of fresh snow. A mixture of sleet and snow in Kansas, Missouri and Illinois will eventually change over to all snow — with up to 8 inches forecast for Kansas City and the St. Louis area — while northern Arkansas will see freezing rain. The system also has its sights set on the Appalachians and the East Coast into Monday.

The storm's eastward move on Saturday finally broke a 70-day streak without precipitation in the Phoenix area. An 85-day spell of no measureable rainfall in Las Vegas ended Friday. Rain and snow also finally came to drought-stricken New Mexico. In Denver, a highway pileup involving more than 100 vehicles killed one person and injured 30 others as heavy snow fell Saturday, authorities said.

In California, about 1,200 houses in the adjacent cities of Azusa and Glendora as well as nearby Monrovia have been under evacuation orders because of the possibility of destructive flows from the San Gabriel Mountains, a rugged range largely covered by the Angeles National Forest. A dozen homes in Azusa were in particular danger.

Television news footage shows mud burying one backyard, swallowing a metal fence and reaching up to the rim of a basketball hoop.

"We've got to find a way to get the 100 tons of mud out of my backyard," Ed Heinlein told the Los Angeles Times about the damage to his Azusa property. "We're probably looking at tens of thousands of dollars in damage."

Forecasters said the upper-level low at the storm's center would come ashore and move east through the day, dragging rain with it but leaving only showers in California on Sunday — a lucky break for the evening's Oscar red carpet festivities in Hollywood.

The storm was the much more powerful second act of two systems that hit California during the week.

Downtown San Francisco has received 8.01 inches of rain by Saturday evening, bringing the city to 44 percent of its normal rainfall but avoiding the city's driest-ever "rain year" record by roughly half an inch, NWS meteorologist Matt Mehle said. The driest year was in 1851, with just 7.42 inches. The rain year begins July 1.

"All this rain has been really helpful but we are still behind the curve in terms of the drought," Mehle said.

Downtown Los Angeles tallied 4.34 inches from the second storm by 5 p.m. Saturday, said NWS meteorologist Joe Sirard in Oxnard. That raised the rainfall total to 5.54 inches since July 1, still 6.19 inches below normal.

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