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Warning: Explosively large surf to hit Southern California beaches on the Fourth

July 3, 2010 | 12:42 pm

Local and state lifeguards are warning beachgoers to exercise caution on July 4 as large ocean swells are forecast to arrive in the morning and pound south-facing shorelines through the rest of the busy beach weekend.

The swells, formed by a large storm near New Zealand, will generate waves with faces of up to 8 feet in height along south-facing beaches in San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles and Ventura counties, according to forecasters at Surfline.com. Large surf is expected to continue through Tuesday before tapering off.

Click for beach safety graphic

As much as the forecast delights board- and body-surfers, it has prompted public warnings from surf experts and lifesaving officials – especially for those less familiar with the rhythm and power of big surf.

When the swell arrives Sunday morning, the initial waves will be followed by long lulls of few or no waves. Then a series of large waves will sweep over previously dry areas, according to surf forecasters. The situation can pose a danger to unsuspecting people who may be walking on steep beaches, exploring tidepools, standing in rocky areas or fishing from jetties or breakwaters.

“Everyone should take serious this surf forecast,” said Ken Kramer, a district superintendent who overseas state park beaches from San Clemente to Huntington Beach. "It’s going to be dangerous."

The July 4 weekend, along with Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, often tax local and state lifeguards. This weekend will be doubly difficult, they said, with the arrival one of the biggest swells of the summer.

Weather forecasters are predicting morning clouds to give way to sunny afternoons for Sunday and Monday – bringing in crowds just when the tide is the highest and the waves will reach the farthest up the beach.

Lifeguards said they will be out in full force, with rescue boats, vehicles and in their towers, as they are for Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends.

The United States Lifeguard Assn. offers 10 tips to avoid getting in trouble or worse in the ocean. They include swimming near a lifeguard, never swimming alone and always swimming sober.

The big swell is likely to increase rip currents, which are rivers of wave-driven water headed back to sea. Lifeguards recommend anyone caught in such a current to not panic or try to fight it. Instead, relax and begin to swim parallel to shore until out of the current and then head back to land.

Kramer also cautions parents to keep a close watch on children playing in the surf who could be vulnerable to waves rushing up the beach. “We recommend for folks who are not experts in the water, that they celebrate America’s birth firmly on the beach or farther up on the sand.”

The Southern Hemisphere swell will not hit all beaches equally. The South-facing beaches in San Diego and Orange counties will see the largest surf. Some of the beaches in the Santa Monica Bay will be sheltered from the biggest waves by Palos Verdes Peninsula. Southern California offers an array of options.

The swell is expected to create the typical summer spectacle at the Wedge, next to the mouth of the Newport Harbor. Body surfers will test their nerves and their necks on waves that can double in size after refracting off the rocks and then slamming onto the shallows or onto the sand. Forecasters project some sets at the Wedge could reach 15 feet.

-- Kenneth R. Weiss

Photo: Spectators watch the summer spectacle of waves crashing onto Corona Del Mar State Beach in July 2009. Credit: Cristine Cotter / Los Angeles Times