The worst freeze since 1937 devastated California's navel orange crop, sending growers into Christmas with little hope of salvaging the season's harvest.

"This is way worse than I've ever seen," Bakersfield-area grower John Slikker Jr. said Monday. "Yesterday, we cut these oranges in half. . . . It was just like cutting through a Popsicle."The weekend arctic blast also damaged nursery plants, lemons and avocados and destroyed most early Southern California strawberries, agriculture officials said. Crop damage was put in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Cliff Holland of California Citrus Mutual, a growers organization, admitted the string of freezing nights probably destroyed the state's 1990-91 navel orange harvest.

Most of California's navel oranges are sold on the fresh market. Florida oranges, in contrast, are used mostly for juice and juice concentrate; those that sustain frost damage can sometimes be salvaged for juice processing.

The Sunkist Growers Inc. cooperative said early estimates indicated that at least half the citrus crop sustained frost damage, spokeswoman Claire Peters said. She added that growers hope to salvage some for juice.

"There will be fewer fruit and what there is will cost more," Peters said.

Inmporters of Chilean fruit, like Los Angeles-based David Oppenheimer & Co., expected demand for foreign fruit to increase as markets scramble to make up for local losses.

It was "freeze-of-the-century stuff," said Dave Carman of the National Weather Service. "This is probably the second-coldest freeze of the century. We are dealing with extreme record cold."

Since Friday, temperatures throughout the San Joaquin Valley citrus region had dipped to 20 degrees and below and were forecast to drop into the teens early today. It was the worst freeze since 1937, officials said.

In Ventura County, losses to lemons, avocados and nursery stocks, or nonfood-bearing plants, totaled at least $100 million, said Jim Fulmer, deputy agricultural commissioner.

About one-fifth of the state's avocados were lost, said Mark Affleck, president of the California Avocado Commission.