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Powerful storm gives the region another soaking

Times Staff Writers

The leading edge of what forecasters said could be the most powerful storm of the season blanketed Southern California on Saturday night, dropping moderate to heavy rain from Orange County to Ventura and promising even heavier downpours today.

But as the region braced for the latest deluge, authorities said they had recovered the body of a third avalanche victim from last week’s snowstorm near the Mountain High ski resort in the San Gabriel Mountains, and a young snowboarder was rescued unharmed after a night outside.

A steady soaking rain began falling late Saturday across much of Southern California, including Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties, raising concerns that the area’s fragile hills, charred in last year’s wildfires, could start to slide.

The National Weather Service said heavy rain, thunderstorms and hail could hit the Southland, with a flash flood watch in effect through tonight and winds up to 35 mph. “We have a big band of storms coming in,” said Bill Hoffer, a spokesman for the weather service in Oxnard.

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Authorities, including rescue personnel, were keeping a wary eye on the storm, but only moderate precipitation had fallen by late Saturday.

“The bottom line is, you never know the full effect of a storm until it really hits and comes on shore,” said Gary Boze, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Public Works Department. “This is a storm season that will last into February, and each time a storm hits we’re even more prepared. No one ever knows until it actually hits land.”

A helicopter crew Saturday rescued a 24-year-old snowboarder who had become stranded in rugged terrain after snowboarding off-trail near Mountain High ski resort. Officials said Oscar R. Gonzalez of Westminster had hunkered down for the night in the fuselage of an abandoned aircraft.

In an interview, his father, Oscar J. Gonzales, said his son, an experienced snowboarder, had kept his mind focused on his 5-month-old daughter despite the 22-degree cold.

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“He said he thought that if he went to sleep, he wouldn’t wake up,” said the father, who waited at a Mountain High first-aid station while helicopters combed the slopes in search of his son, finally finding him in an open field.

Near Mountain High, a ski resort in the Wrightwood area on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, the avalanche victim was identified as Christopher Allport, 60, a veteran character actor from Santa Monica.

An experienced backcountry sportsman, he had been skiing out of bounds from the resort, northeast of Los Angeles, with a friend, according to John Johnston, an L.A. County reserve sheriff’s deputy. His body was found under 10 feet of snow about 9:45 a.m.

Out-of-bounds areas are clearly marked, but Mountain High employees do not have the authority to stop skiers from going beyond cleared slopes because the resort is located in the Angeles National Forest, according to resort President Karl Kapuscinski.

Those who knew him recalled Allport, a musician as well as an actor, as a passionate adventurer.

“He would surf in the morning and ski in the afternoon,” said his friend Jordan Roberts. “He was knowledgeable in every conceivable outdoor activity.”

Allport -- whose credits include the TV series “Mad Men,” “Commander-in-Chief,” “CSI: Miami” and “Felicity” -- had written a story for The Times in 2004 about the pleasures of powder.

“With backcountry savvy, the right equipment, survival skills and a sense of adventure, skilled mountain hands can leave the masses behind and experience the freedom and solitude of the wilderness in winter,” he wrote.

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But, he added: “Any excursion into the mountains requires awareness. . . . Know your limits and ski within them.”

Despite the tragic accidents, the 3 feet of fresh powder from Friday’s snowstorm attracted more than 7,000 skiers to the Mountain High resort Saturday, even as the skies clouded over under the threat of renewed precipitation. Forecasters said the new storm could bring another 1 to 2 feet of snow to areas above 7,000 feet by Monday, with 4 to 10 inches of additional snow on local mountains above 5,000 feet, areas that already have several feet of snow on the ground.

The storm -- cold Pacific air from Alaska drawing up subtropical moisture from the south -- also could bring significant rainfall, the National Weather Service said.

In Los Angeles County, as much as 8 inches of rain was expected in the mountain and foothill areas by Monday, with about 4 inches possible along the coast and in the valleys. The storm also could bring up to 8 inches of rain to areas of Orange County, as well as some parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, forecasters said.

Denuded areas that were burned in recent wildfires, especially in Orange County, Riverside and Malibu, were being closely watched for the possibility of mudslides, but there were no reports of slides or debris flows by late Saturday.

To make rescue efforts safer Saturday, crews were creating small avalanches to avoid potentially bigger ones. Nonetheless, Johnston, a member of the Antelope Valley Search and Rescue, warned, “Rescuers are putting their lives in danger whenever we go out in these conditions.”

Kapuscinski added, “If there’s anything positive out of this, the message is out there that people should stay inside the bounds.”

Ski patrollers do not follow out-of-bounds skiers to try to turn them back, he said, because of the danger.

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Saturday, however, the lure of powder was too strong for many enthusiasts to resist. Four regulars from Thousand Oaks sat on the back of a Ford pick-up in the Mountain High parking lot at midday, after snowboarding out of bounds since 7 a.m.

“The risk versus the benefit makes it worth it,” said Chad Clemens, 32. “It’s too enticing not to do.”

But Scott Lafavre, 23, a UCLA psychology student taking a smoking break nearby, had second thoughts about skiing off-trail. “It’s fresh, untouched snow,” he said wistfully. “I looked at it. But I’m not going to do that, especially after hearing the news.”

In the two backcountry avalanches Friday, two experienced off-duty ski patrollers, Michael McKay, 23, and Darren Coffey, 33, had died.

Both had been seen going under the rope lines, Kapuscinski said.

Paul Baugher, director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute in Washington state, was preparing to teach an avalanche course Saturday and fielding calls from people concerned about the Southern California avalanches.

Baugher said he had known victim McKay.

“The kid had actually taken me to the site, in fact, the site where he was caught. What a nice young man, I was just so shocked to see that,” he said.

Throughout Southern California’s recently burned areas, authorities and residents were on alert Saturday.

Rangers in Griffith Park and sheriff’s deputies in Orange County said they were monitoring the storm’s progress, ready to call in extra equipment and staff at the first sign of major flooding or mudslides.

Park rangers were prepared to patrol Griffith Park throughout the night to make sure the vulnerable hills, charred by last year’s wildfires, held through the storm, said Jane Kolb, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

In Malibu, three crews were patrolling the burn areas Saturday to ensure that roads were clear of debris, said Gary Boze, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Public Works Department.

In Orange County, authorities ordered voluntary evacuations Saturday from Santiago, Modjeska, Harding, Williams and Silverado canyons but said they expected the evacuations to become mandatory during the night.

They also ordered mandatory evacuations of all large animals, which were to be moved to the Orange County Fairgrounds. But by Saturday evening, fewer than a dozen -- including horses, llamas and a donkey -- had been brought to the stalls prepared at the fairgrounds, officials said.

“I hope they heed the warning,” said Cpt. Mike Blawn, a spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority. “This is going to be the largest storm that has hit us in some time, and definitely the largest since the October fires.”

Between 4 and 8 inches of rain were expected in the canyon areas during a nine-hour period from 9 p.m. Saturday to 6 a.m. Sunday, he said. The rains would be augmented, Blawn said, by 20 to 30 mph winds with gusts up to 45 mph.

Blawn said he didn’t know how many residents were complying with the evacuation warnings despite the fact that sheriff’s deputies had gone door-to-door. “Historically the numbers are pretty low.”

Added Lt. Dan Dwyer, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department: “There are quite a number of people remaining there.”

Orange County’s Modjeska Canyon, one of the areas hardest hit by last year’s fires, was a flurry of activity late Saturday as some residents placed sandbags around their property lines and others packed their cars with clothing and supplies.

Brian Frick, 51, a longtime canyon resident, said he had decided not to evacuate even though he had removed 80 wheelbarrow loads of mud from his property during the last two storms.

Of the storm expected overnight, Frick said: “I’m taking extra precautions, but we’re going to hold the fort and ride it out. Hopefully, their predictions, as usual, are wrong.”

Next door, Bruce Day, 67, loaded his trailer in preparation for an overnight stay at a relative’s home in Mission Viejo.

“If it comes down as fast as they say it will, it could be bad,” he said. “Maybe if I was 20 -- young and dumb -- I’d stay, but I can’t see being a burden to others. What are you going to do, jack your house up and haul it away?”

Neighbor Tim Stinson, 55, had also decided to leave, he said -- his fourth storm-related evacuation in the past three months.

“I’m going to a hotel with my rabbit and cat,” Stinson said. “When they tell me to go, I go. I don’t want to be a burden to the people here to look after us in case of an emergency.”

Sondra James, 65, said she was packing up, just in case.

“You put out your garbage, check your refrigerator, do what you need to do,” she said. “Most of my neighbors aren’t going; I think they turn wishes into opinions. There’s a temptation, of course, to stay and watch, but I’m not into risking my life.”

A few houses away, Roger Seemann, 58, was resting on a neighbor’s porch. “We’ve got everything packed up,” he said, “but I think the worst thing that will happen is that the road will be impassable. We’ve got plenty of food and provisions to stay for a week.”

His friend, Bill Griffith, 60, had another thought. “We’ll run out of beer,” he moaned.

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

margot.roosevelt @latimes.com

david.haldane@latimes.com

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Times staff writers J.P. Renaud, Jason Song, Deborah Schoch and Rebecca Trounson contributed to this report.


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