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Rains worsen this afternoon, prompting flooding fears, power outages, traffic troubles [Updated]

January 18, 2010 |  2:08 pm

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Southern California was bracing for an afternoon of heavy rain, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a flash-flood warning for foothill areas burned during last year’s massive brush fires.

The NWS warned that heavy rain and thunderstorms could produce more than an inch of rain an hour, the type of intense storm that could produce mudslides in foothill communities from Sylmar to La Cañada Flintridge hit by last year’s Station fire.

[Updated at 2:16 p.m.: Fire officials ordered mandatory evacuations of about 106 homes in the Paradise Valley area of La Cañada-Flintridge amid intensifying rainfall. Heavy rain was causing substantial flows of debris and water at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. People residing north of 2524 Ocean View Boulevard were subject to the evacuation order.

“We are expecting one inch of rain an hour for the next three hours,” said Inspector Steve Zermeno of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The debris is likely to overwhelm the catch basin meant to channel water and debris away from homes, Zermeno said.

“The debris basin in that area is already at capacity,” he said.

Evacuees were being offered shelter at La Cañada High School, he said. Elsewhere, the heavy rain was blamed for dozens of fender benders, residential and street flooding and some downed power lines. However, authorities reported no fatalities or serious injuries connected to weather-related incidents as of this afternoon.]

Commuters should expect heavy downpours during the afternoon commute. The Los Angeles City Fire Department reported a woman was stranded on top of a car amid flooding in the 6100 block of Balboa Boulevard.

[Updated 4:12 p.m. As of 2:30, more than 44,000 Southern California Edison customers had been affected by power outages across the company’s coverage area, said spokesman Charles Coleman. This includes 2,000 affected in Thousand Oaks, 1,100 in Camarillo, 1,300 in South Gate, 1,200 in Lynwood and 4,100 in Inglewood.

In La Cañada-Flintridge, 3,400 customers lost power, said Charles Coleman, a spokesman for Southern California Edison. About 2,600 customers were affected in the Lake Arrowhead area, 2,500 in Hawthorne, and a combined 1,700 in Hesperia and Victorville. Crews are out working on repairs, Coleman said, but there is currently no estimated time that power will be restored.

“It looks like we’re definitely in for a rainy week,” said Bill Patzert, a meteorologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada-Flintridge. “It’s going to get heavier and messier.”

Experts said the system -- consisting of three major storms -- could be among the most powerful to batter the region since 2005, when record rains drenched the area, causing havoc on roads and hillsides.

IR2HNXThe NWS was also predicting high surf and fierce winds gusting up to 75 mph, with substantial snowfall in higher elevations. The risk of flash floods and mudslides is especially severe in communities near burn areas, notably those below the 250-square-mile Station fire zone, where authorities cited a serious threat of mud and debris flows.

Officials have put in place large swaths of sandbags and concrete barriers as a precautionary move, while closing sections of Angeles Crest Highway and Big Tujunga Canyon Road.

“We are prepared to deal with anything that nature may throw at us,” said Assistant Fire Chief Mike Metro of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “Months of preparation have gone on prior to this day.”

Officials have placed 10,000 feet of concrete storm barriers and distributed about 10,000 sandbags, said Pat DeChellis, deputy director of the L.A. County Department of Public Works. No one had yet been evacuated, officials said this morning, and no evacuations were anticipated until Wednesday or Thursday, when the third storm of the week -- potentially the heaviest – is expected to roll in.

But early signs of instability are already evident, including a slide of five cubic yards of material that rolled down onto Rock Castle Drive in the La Cañada Flintridge area.

“Debris is starting to move,” DeChellis said.

Although about 75 county firefighting personnel have been dispatched to earthquake-battered Haiti, about 150 area rescue personnel are still ready to react, Metro said.

Authorities urged residents to heed evacuation orders if such directions were given. Mudslides and flows of debris can be hazardous, and people cannot stop them on their own.

“They have absolutely no control once a debris flow starts,” Metro said.

Commuter traffic was lighter than usual today because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which was being marked by a parade in South Los Angeles -- an event that went on despite the weather. But many offices and schools were closed, and traffic was much lighter than usual.

The California Highway Patrol reported 81 collisions on area roadways between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. today, compared with 64 during the same period the previous Monday -- which was not a holiday. No fatalities were reported, officials said, though traffic was delayed for hours along the northbound Golden State Freeway when an armored car overturned and went off the road near the intersection of the Ventura Freeway.

One person, believed to be the driver of the armored car, was hospitalized. There was no immediate word on that driver’s status. Police termed road conditions slippery and urged motorists to drive 10 mph to 15 mph slower than normal speed and to never hit the brakes in puddles -- a maneuver that can send a vehicle spinning out of control.

“No abrupt braking and give a big cushion to the car in front of you,” advised CHP Officer Francisco Villalobos. “You don’t want to have to slam on the brakes.”

Because of the weather and resulting high swells, authorities are urging boaters to stay out of the water this week. One positive is that the heavy rainfall anticipated statewide could help replenish water supplies in drought-stricken California. The precipitation should be a boost to depleted reservoirs, ground water and snow packs.

“This could definitely start to turn the drought around,” said JPL's Patzert. “It won’t be a drought-buster, but it should definitely help.”

-- Ann M. Simmons in La Cañada Flintridge, Patrick J. McDonnell and Amina Khan

Photos: Storm arrives in Southern California

Photo: Members of the Los Angeles Fire Department's Swift Water Rescue team try to free a fire department vehicle stuck in a mud debris flow on Blanchard Canyon Road in the foothills of Tujunga below hills burned in the Station fire. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

Map: National Weather Service

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