Winter's First Big Storm Hits : Weather: Almost an inch of rain fell, making a mess of freeways. Much more moisture is needed to cure the drought.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The first major winter storm of the year to hit Southern California dropped almost an inch of rain in most parts of drought-stricken Orange County by Saturday, giving some residents a reason to visit indoor shopping malls while others braved outdoor activities despite the cooler, soggy weather.

But the series of storm fronts that blew in from the Pacific Ocean beginning Friday night also played havoc with the freeway system, causing a rash of fender-benders, several major traffic accidents and some minor flooding in Orange County, officials said.

The storm, which was expected to continue through today, put a dent in the three-year dry spell that has gripped Southern California, where rainfall has measured nearly three inches below normal for the season.

For depleted ground-water levels to be replenished, however, the area would have to receive substantial, steady rainfall through April, the end of the rainy season, said meteorologist Bill Hibbert of WeatherData, a Wichita-based meteorology service.

"Just one good storm is not going to do it," Hibbert said.

But more could be on the way. Additional rain and cooler temperatures are expected during the week as a series of storm fronts hit the coast, Hibbert added.

"It's finally settling down to what the weather is supposed to be like during the winter," he said.

The high temperature for Santa Ana on Saturday was 64, with overnight temperatures expected to drop into the mid-50s, Hibbert said.

In a six-hour period Saturday morning, rainfall in Santa Ana was measured at 0.6 inches. More than an inch is expected by the end of the current storm, Hibbert said.

"That's a fairly appreciable amount of rainfall," he said.

Rainfall is expected to continue sporadically throughout today as a weather front, which reached the coast late Saturday, progressed from Santa Barbara and into the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains, Hibbert said.

The snow level, which was at 7,000 feet on Friday, was expected to drop to about 5,000 feet by Monday, Hibbert said.

More than a foot of mountain snow is expected by midweek, said Patrick Follett, a spokesman for the Snow Summit Ski Resort near Big Bear Lake.

"It's snowing out my window right now," Follett said Saturday afternoon. "We're looking for at least a foot of snow right through midweek," he said. "We've been dreaming of a lot of snow."

At Mammoth Mountain, Marcy Hansen said that the ski resort, which had relied on man-made snow since the beginning of the ski season, was receiving heavy snowfall.

"We're being dumped on all day," Hansen said. "It's a mess. Driving's a mess. Everything has been going on all at once, and it's wonderful."

Orange County business owners and mall operators were also pleased by the appearance of the weekend storm.

At the Mission Viejo Mall, thousands of shoppers sought refuge from the rain as well and headed for the sales on Saturday.

"It's really packed," said Aimee Shaheen, 19, who runs the mall's information desk. "I'm right in the middle of the mall, and I've never seen this many people on a Saturday morning."

Pam Anderson, manager of the Benetton clothing store in South Coast Plaza, agreed that the rain brought an unusually high number of Orange County residents to indoor malls.

"You can always tell by the line at the carousel," Anderson said.

Some, however, chose not to change their outdoors-oriented Southern California life style despite the foul weather.

At about 11:15 a.m., Stephen and Marie Coombs of Fullerton were spotted walking in Hillcrest Park, holding hands during a steady shower.

"We like the rain, and any change from same-way, every-day Southern California sunshine is great," Stephen Coombs said. Added his wife: "I think it's romantic."

And in Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley, Patrick Trang, 21, of Westminster enjoyed a soggy game of basketball with his friends, oblivious to the drizzle that slicked the outdoor court and soaked his clothes.

"I hate being indoors," Trang said. "I would play basketball outside if it was snowing out here. I come to play ball every weekend. It's a great place to play ball."

But Saturday's rains were significant enough to inconvenience thousands of area residents.

Southern California Edison officials reported scattered blackouts in the areas they serve, including Newport Beach, Fountain Valley, Topanga Canyon, Lawndale, Ventura and Carpinteria, south of Santa Barbara.

The storm also brought headaches to law enforcement officials who had to work overtime answering dozens of traffic reports throughout Orange County.

"It's been real busy for us," said California Highway Patrol Officer Tammy Travis, who was sifting through a stack of accident reports on Saturday afternoon. "I was everywhere."

Travis said that at 12:25 p.m., she was busy taking notes on a two-car collision on the Orange Freeway near the Yorba Linda Boulevard off-ramp, when she looked up to see a three-car accident on the crowded freeway in front of her. She had to unravel the cause of a chain-reaction accident that resulted in minor damage to 20 cars near Chapman Avenue earlier in the day.

"It was heavy rainfall that did it," Travis said.

Meanwhile, CHP Officer Robert Mendenhall said that he was kept busy with two pileups near the confluence of the San Diego and Santa Ana freeways.

In one morning accident, four cars slammed into each other, causing slowdowns but no injuries. While a tow truck was pulling one of the wrecked cars off the shoulder of the road on the Santa Ana Freeway near the Alton Parkway off-ramp, a car in the fast lane lost control and skidded into the tow truck, banked off the freeway and landed upside down. Two people received moderate injuries.

Moments later on the same freeway, a suspected drunk driver caused a four-car pileup when he sideswiped two cars, one of which spun around and hit another car. The driver of the first car sped away from the accident and was arrested a short time later at Alton Parkway.

"Drinking and rain sure don't mix," Mendenhall said.

Elsewhere in the Southland, a rock and mud slide on San Francisquito Canyon Road in the unincorporated Green Valley area near Lancaster temporarily trapped at least three drivers and forced dozens of others to turn back, but no one was injured, Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Jim Billesbach said.

About three miles of the two-lane road remained closed Saturday afternoon while county crews worked to clean up debris.

Authorities said the slide was discovered by county fire crews on their way to another slide and flooding near homes at Calle Maleza in Green Valley. Inmate crews from a nearby detention camp stacked sandbags around homes to protect them from the surging mud, but for one homeowner near Calle Maleza, firefighters arrived too late: four feet of mud and water had already swept across his floors.

Nearby hillsides in both slide areas had been laid bare by a brush fire last summer.

RUNNING FOR HELP

The rain couldn't stop a benefit run for homeless children in Irvine. B4

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