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Growers Take Stock of Losses as Freeze Wanes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a slow warming trend took hold across California, agricultural inspectors spent Monday in citrus groves, vegetable fields and packing houses trying to define the dimensions of the devastation that struck the state’s frost-bitten agricultural industry over the weekend.

Most of what they discovered was not encouraging.

In Tulare County alone, where the bulk of California’s navel oranges are grown, Agricultural Commissioner Lenord Craft was estimating a $200-million loss in this year’s harvest, which could translate into a $700-million loss for the local economy. In Ventura County, destruction of nursery stocks, lemons and avocados totaled at least $100 million, said Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Jim Fullmer.

Even in urban Los Angeles County, agriculture officials said the chill caused at least $500,000 in damage, mostly to landscape bushes and flowers. “It could reach $1 million or $2 million easily,” said Bob Donley, deputy director in the agricultural commissioner’s office.

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Agricultural officials said San Diego and Orange County growers apparently were spared major damage.

The Arctic air mass which brought the freeze is slowly dissipating, forecasters said, granting a brief reprieve for the Christmas week, with temperatures in Los Angeles expected to stay in the the 60s. The Civic Center high on Monday reached 65, 10 degrees higher than the day before.

But forecasters say another cold front may be on the way. It is now riding along the Canadian Rockies and into Alaska.

“It’s fairly stationary, but it’s getting ready to make a move,” said meteorologist Steve Burbach of WeatherData Inc., which provides forecasts to The Times. Burbach predicted the next frigid blast will hit Northern California over the weekend, arriving here early next week.

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Burbach added, however, “It won’t be as widespread or as difficult to combat.”

Meanwhile, California continued Monday to feel the effects of the “Arctic Express,” as one National Weather Service forecaster dubbed the front that swept in four days ago.

The low at the Los Angeles Civic Center was 35 degrees--two degrees above the record low for the date set in 1879, said Weather Service meteorologist Jerry Steiger. Records were broken, however, in San Francisco with a low of 32, in Oakland with a low of 34 and in San Jose, where the mercury dropped to 23 degrees.

The icy conditions have taken a toll not only on business but on human lives as well.

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Two possible hypothermia deaths were reported by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office. The body of a 47-year-old man was found Saturday in his mobile home in the northeast San Fernando Valley and an elderly woman was discovered the next day in her garage in the Wilshire area. Orange County authorities also reported that a 57-year-old transient died of hypothermia in Anaheim.

Two unidentified transients died in a fire in a vacant auto repair shop in South-Central Los Angeles on Monday night after they had built a fire in a large metal container to heat the building where several men reportedly lived, authorities said.

Neighbors said the men usually built fires outside in the metal drum, but cold weather apparently forced them inside.

Fire officials said cause of the blaze in the 5000 block of South Vermont Avenue was under investigation. Two other men in the structure at the time of the 7 p.m. blaze were not injured.

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In the Antelope Valley, Thomas Hunsaker, 21, was killed after he lost control of his car, which hit an ice patch and skidded into a light pole at 17th Street and Avenue K in Lancaster, sheriff’s deputies said. Temperatures there had dropped to 5 degrees.

Another measure of the cold came from the Southern California Gas Co. The utility reported that Friday’s natural gas consumption of 5.3 billion cubic feet set an all-time high in Los Angeles.

Farther north, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a severe water shortage apparently was caused by people running their faucets to prevent frozen pipes.

Burst pipes were a common complaint from Napa Valley wineries to the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank. Sheriff’s officials in the Antelope Valley reported receiving 200 to 300 calls a day from people seeking help with their plumbing.

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“We just tell them to go out and shut off the water, and call a plumber,” said Deputy Ronald Giddings.

As for food industry officials, they were still trying to gauge agriculture’s losses and what impact they may have on consumers. Most said it is still too early to tell.

Buyers for the 104-store Stater Bros. chain said they don’t know whether they will have enough winter fruit and produce to meet demand.

“We’re evaluating ads that we are running in the next two weeks to be sure we will have what’s advertised,” said Stater Bros. Chairman Jack H. Brown. “If not, we will have to pull them and substitute other items.”

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Importers of Chilean fruit expect demand to pick up for their product as grocers seek to make up for lost California supplies.

David Oppenheimer & Co., which imports Chilean fruit, expects a cargo ship loaded with nearly 2 million pounds of Chilean peaches, plums, nectarines and other fruits to arrive Thursday at the Port of Los Angeles.

Until the weekend, the state had been projecting a crop of 80-million, 37 1/2-pound cartons of navel oranges for the season, which runs from October through April of 1991. And 46-million cartons of Valencia oranges were expected from March through December or January, said Ron Radenz, a statistician for the California Agricultural Statistics Service.

Sunkist Growers Inc. cooperative spokeswoman Claire Peters said that preliminary estimates indicate that 50% of the citrus crop may have been damaged. Some of the damaged crop, however, may be salvaged for juice, she said.

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About 20% of the avocado crop was lost to the cold front, said Mark Affleck, president of the California Avocado Commission. The state produces 90% of the nation’s avocados.

Still, he said, the 1991 harvest may be higher than the 200 million pounds picked in 1990.

Flowers may also be affected. If there is much more cold weather, Valentine’s Day bouquets “may cost you a little extra,” said Marilyn Corodemas, chief deputy agriculture commissioner for San Diego County, where the most flowers in the state are grown.

At the San Gabriel Nursery in Los Angeles County, the frost caused at least $200,000 damage and perhaps much more, according to Douglas Darrow, a company salesman.

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Contributing to this story were staff writers David Ferrell, Nieson Himmel, Penelope McMillan and Jesus Sanchez in Los Angeles; Tom Furlong in Orange County; John Rivera in the Antelope Valley; Pysche Pascual in Ventura County; Linda Roach Monroe in San Diego; Jonathan Weber in San Francisco and correspondent Mark Arax in Fresno.


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