A powerful winter storm walloped Southern California on Thursday, coating high desert areas with heavy snowfall, causing intense downpours and flash flooding in coastal neighborhoods and twice forcing the closure of I-5 through the Grapevine.
All lanes reopened shortly after 9:30 p.m. But southbound lanes of the 15 Freeway remained closed Thursday night as drivers were warned to avoid the Cajon Pass area after a traffic collision.
The storm — produced by a cold front from the Gulf of Alaska — frustrated holiday travelers who found themselves crawling along alternative routes in sometimes icy conditions when the California Highway Patrol shut the main artery linking the state’s north and south for more than nine hours earlier Thursday.
More than 7 inches of snow fell in Pearblossom by noon while enough snow piled up in nearby Palmdale to snap tree branches, the National Weather Service said.
Farther south, the storm deluged Long Beach with more than 2 inches of rain, breaking the city’s previous record for the day set in 1970.
Still, some found a way to enjoy the spectacle of a white Thanksgiving Day and feel gratitude for a break in the recent dry conditions that have fueled destructive wildfires throughout the state.
In Santa Barbara County, Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason stood alone atop a ridge and surveyed the smoldering landscape of the Cave fire as snow began to fall.
“This is just really unique. We’ve never had fire with active snowfall near the point of origin,” Eliason said. “It was a very thankful moment. Thankful that no one got injured, no one lost their home, that the snow came over heavy rain. And I’m just thankful that everybody got home safe.”
Some firefighters were allowed to return home as weather conditions helped bring the fire under control, he said.
The holiday’s chilly and gray conditions may seem worse than usual because they are such a sudden departure from earlier in the month, said climatologist Bill Patzert.
“It was weather whiplash — an abrupt change from hot and dry to unusually frigid. Like 0 to 60 in a Tesla,” Patzert quipped. “I think as far as the fire season, we can say R-I-P. ... There are quite a few storms lined up.”
A new winter storm is expected to arrive in Northern and Central California on Saturday, persist through the busy Sunday travel day and continue through Tuesday. It could hit Southern California by next Wednesday and Thursday. Satellites show even more rain could be lined up behind that.
Unlike this week’s storms, next week’s is expected to be fueled by an atmospheric river of subtropical moisture from the west — long plumes of water vapor that can pour over from the Pacific Ocean through California. As a result, there should be heavy precipitation, but it’s still too early to pinpoint where rain and snow will be funneled.
“It’s kind of like a fire hose, which is hard to control,” said Carolina Walbrun, meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Monterey office. “Right now, we’re confident that there’s going to be rain, and a lot of it, on Saturday afternoon through Sunday. Where the heaviest precipitation is going to be is still uncertain.”
Depending on what areas are affected by the atmospheric river, there could be concerns about mudslides for recently burned areas, such as the Kincade fire area of northern Sonoma County, which burned through very steep terrain.
“If that fire hose aims toward that burn scar,” Walbrun said, “we’re going to have some issues.”
Thursday’s storm was the second to hit the region this week.
At around 4:30 a.m. Thursday, authorities closed the I-5 through the Tejon Pass and urged motorists to use Highway 101 instead. Because the 101 is at a lower elevation, it generally doesn’t get enough snow to force a closure.
We are still clearing stuck vehicles and the snow is still falling. We will provide an update when something changes. We do not have an estimated time of reopening. We will post and tweet when we do. SR-58 is open but we recommend US-101 as the preferred detour.#Grapevine pic.twitter.com/tapGutB8sg— CHP Fort Tejon (@CHPFortTejon) November 28, 2019
On the freeway just north of Lake Hughes Road, the California Department of Transportation began operating a new gate that allows drivers to turn around and travel back in the other direction when road conditions are dicey.
The 52-foot-long steel gate weighs 5 tons, and crews can open it by hand in less than two minutes. The gate enables drivers to avoid surface streets, which become congested when the freeway is closed, said Caltrans spokesman Eric Menjivar.
“We were pretty excited to get this new gate into use,” Menjivar said. “We think this ‘snow gate’ will help people get to where they need to get to.”
On the northern side of the Grapevine, Shell gas station assistant manager Abraham Diaz said his day was filled with a rotation of commuters stymied by the highway closure.
“Some are frustrated, some are upset. Some go, ‘You know what? Forget this. I’m going home,’” Diaz said.
The freeway was reopened for a few hours before authorities closed all lanes again about 8:20 p.m. They were reopened about an hour later.
The rains were suspected of playing a role in the creation of a sinkhole that forced the closure of a two-mile section of Turnbull Canyon Road in Whittier. The road was expected to be closed between Beverly Hills and Skyline drives until at least Monday.
In preparation for the storm, Los Angeles opened several emergency shelters, making 471 beds available through Friday. More than 1,200 are expected to open over the next month during the city’s annual winter roll-out.
Meanwhile on I-5 near the Frazier Mountain Park Road exit... pic.twitter.com/E9nWevaXEC— Caltrans District 6 (@CaltransDist6) November 28, 2019
At least 9,000 Southern California Edison customers found themselves without power at some point Thursday morning as the utility worked to fix utility equipment damaged by snow, company officials said. Among them were about 4,000 customers in Crestline in San Bernardino County, said Edison spokesman Robert Villegas. The rest were spread throughout the utility’s 50,000-square-mile territory.
Edison increased staffing and placed workers throughout its service area early to limit chances that repair crews would be cut off from customers due to mud or debris flows, Villegas said.
“We fully anticipate multiple days of stormy weather, so we have our crews working,” he said. “It’s always a tough thing on holidays for those who aren’t going to be home, but it’s a part of their job.”
Others found a good way to enjoy themselves away from home.
With the temperature in Palmdale in the 30s, Highland High School football coach Richard Lear gave his players the option of practicing inside or outside in preparation for their championship game on Saturday against North Torrance. Their answer: outside.
Linebacker Daniel Brown looked like a Marvel superhero as he sent his body flying, cutting in half a snowman that had been built on the field.
“It wasn’t our most productive practice,” Lear said, “but might have been our funnest.”
Times staff writers Eric Sondheimer, Hailey Branson Potts, Anh Do, Paige St. John and Hannah Fry contributed to this report.