An Arctic storm brought a rare mix of patchy blue skies, snow and hail to Southern California on Friday, closing the Grapevine at times, leaving motorists stranded near Big Bear and prompting forecasters to warn that the snow level could dip today to about 1,000 feet.
While downtown Los Angeles was sunny much of Friday, it snowed in areas as low as 2,000 feet in the Santa Clarita, Antelope and San Gabriel valleys. Hailstorms struck large swaths of the region, including Pasadena, Eagle Rock and Glendale.
Frazier Park, Gorman and other mountain communities received a steady dusting, prompting officials to declare the first school “snow day” of the season as residents stocked kitchens and covered pipes to prevent them from freezing.
In Northern California, a rare snow blast prompted the California Highway Patrol to close a portion of state Highway 17 in the coastal mountains between Santa Cruz and San Jose.
The National Weather Service warned that flurries were possible at low elevations that rarely see snow. If that forecast holds, snow could hit the Hollywood Hills. It is more likely to stick to the ground, however, in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains and foothills, forecasters said.
The cold snap shows the force of La Nina, a condition caused by lower-than-normal ocean surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific. It is the opposite of the El Nino pattern, which has produced some of Southern California’s most destructive rain seasons.
The current La Nina has produced an unusual winter marked by the first rain at the Rose Parade in 51 years, followed by unseasonable brush fires in January and, now, the possibility of low-elevation flurries.
While last winter was the second-wettest on record, this one is shaping up to be the driest in years, with Los Angeles recording rainfall totals far below average. This storm, forecasters say, fits the classic La Nina pattern: cold air that can produce snow at lower elevations but relatively modest rainfall in the basin.
“Don’t expect that much rain, but you can expect a lot of excitement,” said William Patzert, a meteorologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, adding that he could not discount the possibility of water spouts and small tornadoes because of the combination of frigid and relatively warm air.
“I’m hoping I can whip out my cross-country skis in Sierra Madre,” he said.
Friday’s temperatures were low, though not record-breaking. Downtown Los Angeles recorded a low of 46, Woodland Hills had 37 and Newhall 35. Forecasters said intermittent rain should continue through Sunday, bringing even lower temperatures.
Grapevine-area resident Sherie Sabo stocked up at a market, let her dog into the house and put the chickens in their coops in preparation for more snow.
“We haven’t had snow all year,” said Bob Anderson, a construction consultant who lives in the mountain community of Lebec, as he and his wife purchased groceries for what could be a snowed-in weekend. “This is our biggest and only storm so far.”
Along Interstate 5, travelers and long-haul truckers hurried to avoid the growing storm as a steady snow fell.
“I’ve got to get off this mountain,” said Lloyd Ferreria, who was hauling a load of ammonia north out of Southern California and hurried to get into his truck after a quick break in Gorman.
At the Dream Castle Cafe in Frazier Park, waitress Julie Verdon spent the day fielding calls from people asking if the eatery would be open over the weekend because they planned to come up and view the snow.
“It’s unbelievable,” Verdon said. “People keep calling and asking, ‘Are you going to be open tomorrow, are you going to be open tomorrow?’ We’re going to be busy.”
Ski resorts in the San Bernardino Mountains are also braced for both snow and people.
“Today is the best day we’ve had all season: Conditions are excellent, it’s really light and powdery,” said Marty Ward, public relations director for Big Bear Mountain Resorts. “We’ve received 8 inches of snow so far, and we’re anticipating more throughout the weekend.”
Heavy snowfall forced the closure of Highway 38 near Big Bear, and some drivers got stuck in the snow, according to Officer Wally Wood of the CHP’s Lake Arrowhead office.
The Grapevine and several mountain roads were also closed periodically. Snow blanketed mountain communities in San Diego County, including Julian and Pine Valley.
The Southland is experiencing a taste of the conditions Northern California and the Sierras have been grappling with for the last two weeks because of La Nina.
Ken Gosting, executive director of a nonprofit organization that monitors highway conditions in the Sierra Nevada, said that even bees seem to be overwhelmed by the frigid weather.
“Bees were coming out to pollinate the wildflowers and they just got zapped,” Gosting said. “It was amazing to watch bees just drop in mid-flight ... it was so cold. There were bee carcasses lying all over the place.”
Despite the adage that it never snows in Los Angeles, Southern California has experienced a handful of freak snowstorms over the years with the same combination of cold air and moderate precipitation.
Perhaps best known was the storm of Jan. 11, 1949, when there was so much snow that cars in downtown Los Angeles were coated, people skied on the streets of Altadena and even the hills of Catalina Island were capped with white.
Despite today’s expected storm, Patzert said he doesn’t expect the dry conditions to change through the end of the rainfall season in June.
Since July 1, downtown Los Angeles has received only 7.74 inches of rain. Last year at this time, 34.51 inches had fallen.
“Normally at this time of the year, we should have about 11.91 inches of rain,” Patzert said. “So this year we’re way below normal, but it rained on the Rose Parade for the first time in 50-some years. And last year, we had record rains, and it didn’t rain on the parade. So go figure.”
Times staff writers Michelle Keller and Tony Perry contributed to this report.