Wet Weekend From 2 Storms Expected After Warm Respite : Winter: Forecasters see more rain again by Tuesday in a follow-the-leader weather system. Such a pattern could help ease the state's drought.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An intense, windblown Pacific storm finally moved ashore Thursday night, bringing with it the start of another wet weekend in Orange County and the promise of continuing weather patterns that could help ease California's long drought.

The rain arrived in the county by 11 p.m., and up to 2 inches of rain could fall by Saturday. Forecasters said two more storms heading this way from the Gulf of Alaska should bring more precipitation Sunday and Tuesday.

On Thursday, rather than the anticipated afternoon rains, the sun brought warm temperatures to much of the county. In fact, Santa Ana missed being the warmest place in the nation by 2 degrees, falling just below Coronado in San Diego County, which reached 80 degrees, forecasters said. El Toro and San Juan Capistrano also were warm, with highs of 77 degrees.

Today's temperatures are expected to be in the low to middle 60s.

The new storm, born over the tropics, will pass too far south to add much to the Sierra snowpack--California's principal source of water--but the colder, more northerly storms of Sunday and Tuesday are expected to contribute significantly.

The storms promise to push seasonal rainfall totals for early January to above-normal levels for the first time in more than four years. Continuing snowfall in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains should mean some of the best local skiing conditions since the drought began.

While state officials point out that water levels in California's reservoirs are still far below normal and meteorologists say it is much too soon to predict an end to the drought, forecasters see encouraging signs. The National Weather Service says wind and temperature readings indicate the continuation of a moderate "El Nino" condition in the eastern Pacific, in which warmer-than-normal equatorial waters change the usual wind patterns.

These conditions usually lead to a series of Pacific storms, much like the ones that have been blowing in to California for the last 10 days.

Air circulating between the first storm and a clear-weather system moving out to the east generated winds that gusted at up to 35 m.p.h. through Southern California's mountain passes Thursday afternoon.

The wind is expected to continue as the first rain starts falling sometime before dawn this morning, said Steve Burback, a meteorologist with WeatherData Inc., which provides forecasts to The Times.

"We're definitely starting off the new year right," he said.

The local snow level from the first storm will be about 7,000 feet, which is high, but not too high to disappoint the operators of ski resorts, most of which are above that altitude. And during the storms due Sunday and Tuesday, the snow level should drop to 5,000 feet.

With last weekend's storms, "conditions here were already fantastic," said Chris Riddle, director of skiing at the Snow Summit resort above Big Bear. "With what's coming, we should have some of the best ski conditions in years."

The major disappointment could result if there is no clean break between today's storm and the rain due late Sunday. Lingering cloudiness could obscure an otherwise-spectacular annular solar eclipse that will reach its height at 4:50 p.m. Saturday.

Times staff writer Matt Lait contributed to this story.

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