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Calls Flood Plumbers as Icy Weather Bursts Pipes : Cold: A Canyon Country repair firm, working ‘like an emergency room,’ logs 1,023 pleas for help as temperatures dip to 10 degrees in some areas.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a plumber’s dream. It was a plumber’s nightmare. And for thousands of residents and business owners, it was cold and wet.

Bone-chilling temperatures over the weekend froze and ruptured water pipes throughout the Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys, driving scores of frantic homeowners to their telephones and sending plumbers racing to their trucks.

Although frigid temperatures cracked water pipes in the San Fernando Valley and other parts of the Southland, the northern valleys of Los Angeles County were particularly hard hit, said plumbers and fire officials. Lancaster reported a low of below 10 degrees on Sunday. At noon, the temperature had crept up to 32.

“We’ve been more like paramedics than plumbers,” said plumber Kurt Bohmer between telephone calls at his Canyon Country office. Between 1 a.m. and 10 p.m. Saturday, Bohmer’s company had logged 783 calls for help. By Sunday afternoon, the weekend total was 1,023--and growing.

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“It has been incredible,” an exhausted Bohmer said Sunday. “We worked all night last night. We’re basically like an emergency room.”

Indeed, plumbers performed triage, ranking calls in order of severity.

“We stopped counting after 691,” said Vicki Stricker of D & D Rooter and Plumbing in Lancaster. “And that was yesterday at 11 o’clock.”

At Palmdale Hardware and Gift, homeowners had stripped the shelves bare of pipe insulation and heat tapes, electric devices which warm freezing pipes. “We sold out before 1 o’clock yesterday,” said salesman Steve Ritchie. “We’re out of it. In fact, everybody in the valley is out of it.”

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Desperate buyers even snatched up all of Palmdale Hardware’s propane torches, planning to heat pipes clogged with ice.

Cold weather is not unusual in northern Los Angeles County. Snow often dusts the high desert and in recent years children have waged snowball fights near Six Flags Magic Mountain.

But residents in the region’s mushrooming housing tracts rarely prepare plumbing for freezing weather by wrapping pipes in insulation, for example. Plastic pipes--and even metal ones--become brittle and crack in the cold, letting water gush forth from ceilings and walls. Plumbers and firefighters said they could not recall such a flood of, well, floods.

“We couldn’t do our job because we had people outside the door lined up,” Stricker said.

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To quell the chaos, the owner closed the shop and set up a dispatch center in his Lancaster house, where Stricker, sounding like a counselor at a crisis hotline, tried to calm worried callers:

“We’re moving as fast as we can.. . . If something breaks, call us back.. . . I know it’s devastating and horrible and everything else, but we’ll get to you . . . . “

Stricker said most callers were patient but some let their frustrations show. Residents in Leona Valley, southwest of Palmdale, spotted the plumber’s truck and converged on the man, saying he couldn’t leave the street until he repaired their houses too. “It was pretty threatening,” Stricker said.

The plumber left without repairing the leaks because he ran out of supplies, she said.

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LoAnn Gaudette, director of Children’s Country Preschool in Canyon Country, was one of the lucky Santa Clarita residents who actually found a plumber after calling “here, there and everywhere.”

When Gaudette and her husband stopped by the preschool on their way to church Sunday morning, they discovered water spraying from the ceiling. “This must be my initiation, because I just became director,” said Gaudette, formerly a teacher at the school.

The damage was minimal, she said. The school will be open for business Wednesday.

Other valley residents waited for help, with visions of plumbers dancing in their heads.

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“We called every plumber in the Santa Clarita Valley yesterday and it was totally useless,” said Dean Quashen, general sales manager of Crossroads Pontiac, Buick, Hyundai. When pipes burst Saturday afternoon, “it looked like it was raining indoors for a while,” he said.

In the San Fernando Valley, where temperatures were slightly warmer, firefighters and residents reported a spate of ruptured pipes as well. At the Topanga Plaza mall in Canoga Park, below-freezing temperatures were blamed for a burst air-conditioning pipe that caused $20,000 in damage to four stores, the Los Angeles Fire Department said.

The two-inch-thick pipe, located above a storage area in the back of a Waldenbooks outlet, burst about 8:40 a.m., flooding the store in two inches of water and destroying books stacked on the floor, Battalion Chief Don Mello said.

Mello said firefighters in his battalion, which covers the southwest San Fernando Valley, were overwhelmed by weather-related plumbing calls Saturday night and Sunday morning.

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“I have never in my 30 years as a firefighter seen as many water problems as I have today,” he said. Mello said there were at least 30 calls of burst pipes in his area since Saturday.

The biting cold kept police busy with traffic accidents caused by icy roads. But Sgt. Gary Olson, speaking from the Lancaster office of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said he sympathized with the plumbers. “I hope they got their shopping done,” he said.

For some, the shopping would have to wait.

“I’m not allowed to have Christmas this year,” Bohmer said. “I’m going to plumb right through Christmas.”

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Times staff writer Philipp Gollner contributed to this story.


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