Another Wet Weekend in Store

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An intense, windblown Pacific storm started to move on shore Thursday night, bringing with it the prospect of another wet weekend and the promise of continuing weather patterns that could help ease California's long drought.

Up to two inches of rain could fall on the region by Saturday, and forecasters said two more storms heading this way from the Gulf of Alaska should bring additional precipitation on Sunday and Tuesday.

Today's storm, which was born over the tropics, will pass too far south to add much to the Sierra snowpack--California's principal source of water--but the cooler, northerly storms on Sunday and Tuesday are expected to contribute significantly to the pack.

The storms promise to push seasonal rainfall totals for early January to above normal 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 say there are some encouraging signs.

The National Weather Service says wind and temperature readings indicate the continuation of a moderate "El Nino" condition in the eastern Pacific, a situation in which warmer-than-normal equatorial waters cause a shift in the usual wind patterns.

These conditions usually lead to a continuing series of Pacific storms.

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 on Thursday afternoon.

The winds were expected to continue as rain starts falling here before dawn this morning, said Steve Burback, a meteorologist with WeatherData Inc.

"The heaviest rain will be Friday morning through Friday evening, with close to two inches in some places," Burback said. "There won't be much of a respite Saturday before the next storm comes in, with rain late Sunday. After that, about Tuesday, there'll probably be more rain. . . .

"Those last two storms will definitely add to the snowpack in the Sierra," he added. "And that will continue, I'm sure. We're definitely starting off the new year right."

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. 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." At nightfall Thursday, the seasonal rainfall total at the Los Angeles Civic Center stood at 3.81 inches, .9 inches below the average total for this time of year. If one to two inches of rain fall today as Burback predicts, the total by tonight should exceed the norm.

The lingering cloudiness between today's storm and the one due Sunday could obscure an otherwise spectacular solar eclipse that will start at about 4:40 p.m. Saturday.

Temperatures were relatively warm on Thursday, with a high of 72 degrees at the Civic Center. Highs today, Saturday and Sunday are expected to range from the mid-50s to the mid-60s, following overnight lows in the low 40s to low 50s.

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