A fast-moving winter storm barreled into Southern California early Thursday, bringing heavy snow, pounding rain and a rare tornado.
The second of back-to-back cold fronts from the Gulf of Alaska arrived on Christmas Day and stayed overnight, bringing rain that flooded roadways across Los Angeles County and snow that closed the 5 Freeway in the Grapevine, Angeles Crest Highway and the 15 Freeway in the Cajon Pass. Some regions were hit with up to 3 inches of rain, said Tom Fisher, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
The 15 Freeway in the Cajon Pass reopened Thursday afternoon, but officials said to expect lengthy delays due to the weather conditions and particularly heavy traffic. Drivers were urged to avoid traveling until the rush dies down.
The storm prompted a tornado warning late Wednesday for parts of the Santa Barbara County coast, which was hit by powerful winds as well as rain. The warning expired at 10:30 p.m., and there were no reports of damage, but the area saw about 2 inches of rain.
In nearby Ventura County, several trees were uprooted by storm winds and heavy rain, and the National Weather Service confirmed a rare tornado touched down in the harbor area.
Orange County got its own tornado warning early Thursday after a severe thunderstorm capable of producing a twister was spotted near Laguna Beach and Newport Beach, moving north at 35 mph. The tornado warning was canceled about 10 minutes later after the storm weakened, but residents were jolted awake by the emergency alerts.
Heavy snow that blanketed mountain ranges and made for difficult post-holiday travel is expected to linger through Friday. The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for the San Diego and Santa Barbara county mountains for Thursday, saying heavy snow could make for dangerous travel. Up to 14 inches was expected to fall in the Santa Barbara County mountains in areas above 5,000 feet, while up to 8 inches was expected above 3,500 feet.
In the mountains in San Diego County, including the cities of Julian and Pine Valley, accumulations up to 8 inches are expected up to 4,500 feet, and up to 16 inches above 5,000 feet, according to the weather service.
About 4 inches of snow fell on the Antelope Valley overnight, and another 4 inches was expected to fall throughout the day, Fisher said.
The California Highway Patrol said that, about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, there were multiple vehicles stuck on the 5 Freeway at the Grapevine amid heavy snowfall. Video showed some motorists trying to push their cars off the snow-covered highway.
Shortly after 8 a.m., a tow truck driver responding to a big rig stopped on the southbound portion of the freeway just north of Frazier Mountain Park Road found the driver, a man in his 40s, unresponsive inside the semi. The man was pronounced dead at the scene, CHP Officer Thomas Bey said.
Authorities say the man appeared to have pulled over to sleep inside the truck. His death does not appear to be weather-related, Bey said.
Video from the 15 Freeway in the Cajon Pass early Thursday showed cars stopped on the road as flurries fell around them. Angeles Crest Highway between Newcomb’s Ranch and Highway 39 is closed because of snow, as is Highway 33 in Ventura County.
Certain mountain areas could get as much as 2 feet of fresh powder, leaving the Mountain High and Mt. Baldy ski resorts primed for great conditions. Heavy snowfall could lead to whiteouts, the National Weather Service warned.
“There’s going to be gusty east to southeast winds between 20 and 30 mph, with gusts up to 45 mph,” Fisher said. “That means there will be snow, blowing wind, fog and low visibility.”
Although much of the L.A. Basin escaped the snow, the pounding rain was enough to break at least one record and cause traffic headaches. In Long Beach, the storm dumped 1.03 inches of rain Wednesday, breaking the previous record for the day of 0.89 inches set in 1968.
The pouring rain caused the southbound lanes of the 710 Freeway at Slauson Avenue to flood about 1:30 a.m., spurring the CHP to close the freeway for several hours. The transition from the westbound 91 Freeway to the northbound 605 Freeway was closed early Thursday after a tree toppled onto the road. The rain also sent rocks tumbling onto Encinal Canyon Road in Malibu, but no serious damage was reported.
Los Angeles Fire Department crews rescued a man from 3 to 6 feet of water in the Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys about 2:15 a.m., authorities said. The 52-year-old man was brought to safety and evaluated for potential hypothermia, according to spokeswoman Margaret Stewart.
This storm comes on the heels of a system that brought heavy rain — up to 3 inches in some areas in Southern California — on Sunday and Monday.
Clearer skies are expected through the weekend, but don’t pack up your rain boots just yet: Meteorologists say more rain is in the forecast for early next week.
Times staff writers Rong-Gong Lin II and Benjamin Oreskes contributed to this report.