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Arctic storm finally brings rain to Southern California, but without mudslides that some feared

The arctic storm that moved throughout Southern California on Friday brought significant showers to punctuate one of the driest winters on record but was not powerful enough to cause the kind of extensive damage that some officials had feared.

Rain from the Gulf of Alaska storm that swept into the region overnight stuck around for several hours, causing mud and debris flows that prompted the closure of some roadways in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

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Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Malibu was closed in both directions between Grand View Drive and Pacific Coast Highway because of a mud and rockslide, said California Highway Patrol Officer Stephanie Norton. It was not clear when the roadway would be reopened.

Still, those who had braced for the worst after January's deadly mudslides in Montecito experienced minimal damage to their communities and saw their mandatory evacuations lifted early in the day.

"Together we made it," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said in a statement. He added that the evacuation orders for as many as 30,000 people created "a tremendous hardship and we did not make this decision lightly."

Santa Barbara County officials said the clearing of flood control channels after the Jan. 9 storm that swept away homes and killed 21 people in Montecito prevented problems with Friday's storm system.

"We are cautiously optimistic that due to a significant amount of pre-storm preparation we have come through this with minimal impact," Rob Lewin, director of the county's Office of Emergency Management, said in a statement.

"Crews are currently completing assessment of all roads, debris basins, conditions of utilities and other public facilities for damage or impact."

Montecito Fire Department Capt. Jordan Zeitsoff said creeks held up well in areas that were most at risk of mudslides and that there were no major road closures or significant flooding.

He added that residents complied with evacuation orders more promptly than during January's deluge.

"Now we just have to prepare for the next storm that will come," he said.

The CHP said that the 101 Freeway remained open but that authorities were closely monitoring the roadway in case a closure became necessary later.

The storm had a "pretty good intensity" over Santa Barbara and Ventura counties during the predawn hours Friday, said Stuart Seto, a weather specialist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. The heaviest fall occurred over the Santa Ynez Mountains, where rain was coming down at about half an inch per hour.

The rainfall slightly exceeded the projected total in Santa Barbara County, falling at a rate of 0.6 of an inch of rain per hour, officials said.

After days of hearing warnings about the impending storm, those in Montecito settled back into routine by Friday morning.

As a light drizzle fell, Manuel Cedeno continued along his usual route on East Valley Road as he collected garbage from bins for a sanitation company.

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"Things seem to be getting back to normal," Cedeno said.

By about 8:30 p.m., the Santa Barbara County mountains had seen a maximum of about 3½ inches of rain, while Ventura County received as much as 3.15 inches, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Robbie Munroe.

In Los Angeles County, the storm brought 3½ inches to the Santa Monica Mountains, 1.41 inches to Beverly Hills and .51 of an inch to downtown Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles County mountains were expected to receive up to 12 inches of snow, with some areas receiving up to 18 inches, according to the weather service. The mountains in Ventura County will receive slightly less. By Saturday, snow levels could drop to 4,000 feet, and Interstate 5 through the Grapevine could see a few inches of snow, Seto said.

Northern California has seen blizzard conditions, and an avalanche closed the Squaw Valley ski resort in the afternoon. No injuries were reported, according to the Placer County Sheriff's Office.

But earlier in the day, the office identified the body of a snowboarder who had gone missing Thursday night at a Lake Tahoe ski resort during a blizzard. Wenyu Zhang, 42, of Rocklin, Calif., was located by Squaw Valley Ski Patrol members. The cause of death has not been determined.

The weather conditions brought a rare wet day for Southern California, which has seen well-below average rainfall, sparking concerns about a return of drought conditions.

Some, however, remained troubled about what could still come.

Sara Miller McCune, the founder of a publishing company, settled in Montecito two decades ago and recently moved into a new home on San Ysidro Road.

The threat of fire and mudslides has been taxing for the 77-year-old. And the most recent evacuation left her unsettled.

Exiting her white Jaguar with the help of an assistant who carried her blue suitcase, McCune said she can't shake a feeling of anxiety for the home she bought so she could build a library and have a relaxing place to read.

"There's boulders sitting there ready to come down," she said, motioning to the burned hillside. "At this point I don't know how to feel."

Patrick Braid passes through a closed road to check on residents who sheltered in place in the early morning hours Friday in Montecito.
Patrick Braid passes through a closed road to check on residents who sheltered in place in the early morning hours Friday in Montecito. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Etehad reported from Montecito, and Branson-Potts reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Corina Knoll contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

UPDATES:

9:15 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional reporting and rainfall totals.

11:20 a.m. This article was updated with the closure of PCH and new rainfall totals.

10:10 a.m. This article was updated with evacuation orders being lifted.

8:40 a.m. This article was updated with information from Santa Barbara county officials.

7:45 a.m.: This article was updated with quotes from Manuel Cedeno.

This article was originally published at 6:45 a.m.

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