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Snow forces closure of key freeways, strands some in Antelope Valley*

December 17, 2008 |  7:30 pm


*Updated at 7:30 p.m.

A powerful storm created havoc Wednesday in Southern California's mountains and high deserts, cutting off most roads in and out of the Antelope Valley, trapping drivers in the San Bernardino Mountains and causing numerous accidents.

The windy, snowy conditions left some residents of Palmdale and Lancaster stranded, and also were blamed for a helicopter crash in Santa Clarita.

The storm’s combination of frigid air, powerful winds and heavy precipitation dropped the snow level to an unusually low 2,000 feet, dumping at least 20 inches of snow in the mountains, five inches in the hills above Malibu and at least six inches in Palmdale, where all major routes from Los Angeles were blocked.

Forecasters said another winter storm is expected to hit the region Sunday night.

Snow and ice shut down three of California’s key north-south routes — Interstate 5, Interstate 15 and the 14 Freeway — along with numerous mountain roads and desert highways.

The closures caused traffic nightmares for drivers trying to get into or out of Southern California. The severity of the storm caught many by surprise, leaving them stranded on the side of freeways, at rest stops and trying to stay warm inside their cars along snow-packed roads around Big Bear.

It had already started to rain when Garcia Ignacio drove off early Wednesday with his wife, Hortencia, to a kitchen-remodeling job in Woodland Hills. But he never expected the raindrops would turn into sheets of snow.

The couple spent the rest of the day trying to find a way home as authorities shut down one freeway after another. They finally gave up and checked into a La Quinta Inn in Santa Clarita.

"My 20-year-old and my 16-year-old are stuck home in Lancaster, and my wife and I are stuck here in a hotel," said Ignacio, who owns Aaron’s Construction in Lancaster. "But I’m not worried about them, though. I called them already, and they were playing in the snow."

The storm brought steady rain to many parts of the Los Angeles Basin, and major street flooding was reported in Palm Springs. The opening night of the 100th annual Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade was called off by organizers because of choppy seas caused by the storm.

Forecasters were predicting the Las Vegas Strip could get three inches of snow overnight. The weather caused some flight delays at McCarren International Airport, which doesn’t have snowplows.

In the Bouquet Canyon area of Santa Clarita, fire officials said a wind gust knocked over a helicopter that was hovering above the ground, killing a man who may have been a mechanic.

The snow forced the closure of the 14 Freeway from 6.6 miles south of Palmdale at Soledad Canyon to California 138, according to the California Department of Transportation. The Antelope Valley Transit Authority suspended all local bus service. Sierra Highway and portions of California 138 also were shut by the snow.

Some Palmdale residents were taking the weather in stride.

Manny Luiz, a 15-year resident, said he didn't go to work Wednesday. An administrator at a Chatsworth nursing home, Luiz said he was afraid that he would get stuck on the 14 Freeway.

So Luiz, 52, spent the morning at a local Starbucks enjoying a cup of coffee and the winter scene.

"It’s great," he said. "I enjoy the snow. You see kids all over the place building a snowman."

—Alexandra Zavis, Nathan Olvarez-Giles and Jennifer Oldham

Photo: Arnold Garcia, left, makes a snowman with his stepson Issac Martinez in Palmdale as snow falls in the Antelope Valley.

Credit: Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times

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