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Published December 21, 2010, 09:52 PM

LA Evacuations Ordered; California Braces for More Rain

Forecasters expected heavy rains across California going into Wednesday, and authorities began evacuations late Tuesday as concern grew about potential mudslides in the wildfire-scarred foothills across the southern part of the state.

By: Gillian Flaccus, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — If six days of pounding rain wasn't enough to dampen holiday spirits, a seventh could prove to be downright dangerous.

Forecasters expected heavy rains across California going into Wednesday, and authorities began evacuations late Tuesday as concern grew about potential mudslides in the wildfire-scarred foothills across the southern part of the state.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency Tuesday for Kern, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Luis Obispo and Tulare counties because of the extreme weather conditions.

Officials ordered evacuation of 232 homes in La Canada Flintridge and La Crescenta, foothill suburbs of Los Angeles, because of forecasts of more heavy rains on already saturated mountainsides.

San Diego police evacuated dozens of homes and businesses but no structural damage was reported in the city, said Lt. Andra Brown. A commuter rail station was closed in the city's Sorrento Valley area due to heavy rains. About a dozen homes were evacuated in a cul-de-sac south of downtown.

A mudslide closed one street in the La Jolla area of San Diego.

Farther inland in Riverside, a surge of water swept through a homeless camp near the banks of the Santa Ana River.

Rebecca Truver, 45, was holed up in her tent when her dog and her cat started acting strangely.

"They knew something was happening," Truver said of her dog and cat. "Then all of a sudden the water came through up to my knees."

Three people suffered minor injuries and about 50 lost all their belongings in the flood, Ruth Record, with Come as You Are Homeless Ministries, told the Riverside Press Enterprise.

Other inconveniences have so far been relatively minor: Rescuers had to pluck some stranded motorists from rain-swollen creeks. Shoppers dodged puddles while buying last-minute Christmas gifts. Disney resorts canceled a plan to shower visitors with artificial snow.

"We'll keep our fingers crossed, but the more rain that comes, the possibility of mudslides is definitely real," said Jim Amormino, spokesman for the Orange County sheriff's office, which has rescued nine people from the flooding in the past 24 hours.

"We've been lucky so far, but I'm not sure how much longer the luck will hold out," he said.

For all the perils of the torrential rains, there was a silver lining: The water is expected to help ease the effects of years of drought. Thursday is expected to be dry, with sunshine. There will be light rain on Christmas Day in parts of California.

The immediate concern, however, was the impact of the expected downpours, particularly in areas where wildfires stripped hillsides of the vegetation that keeps soil in place and burns up dead leaves and other debris that act like a sponge.

Downtown Los Angeles received one-third of its annual average rainfall in less than a week. As of midmorning Tuesday, the rain gauge at the University of Southern California campus recorded 5.77 inches. Forecasters said another 2 inches was expected there through Wednesday.

Up to two inches of rain per hour was expected in areas primed for a major mudslide by last year's wildfire in suburbs just north of the city.

The storm was expected to drop a total of 10½ to 15½ feet of snow at Mammoth Mountain, about five hours northeast of Los Angeles in the Eastern Sierras, capping off what's already made record books as the December ever at the ski resort.

Mudslides are a significant risk for three years after a fire and are especially likely anytime the rainfall rate reaches or exceeds one inch per hour, said Susan Cannon, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

That's a likely scenario Tuesday night into Wednesday in the area burned by last year's Station Fire, which charred 250 square miles above the suburbs tucked below the San Gabriel Mountains.

A debris flow of rocks and mud about three feet deep was detected in the area early Tuesday and forecasters warned of possible rainfall rates of .75 inch to 1 inch an hour and thunderstorm rates of 2 inches an hour in the region.

"It means that once the heaviest rains start, it should be a very active time up there," Cannon said.

Heavy rains also fill riverbeds and creeks that remain dry much of the year, often spilling onto roadways and washing them away.

In San Bernardino County, east of Los Angeles, the normally dry Mojave River was running 17 feet deep and overflowing onto the roadway, said Tracey Martinez, spokeswoman for the county's fire authority.

Major rains in California can have deadly consequences.

In 2005, five days of near constant rain left at least 28 dead in mudslides and drownings, including a major bluff collapse in the Central Coast town of La Conchita that killed an entire family except the father. He had gone to get ice cream for his children.

So far, authorities say, there were two traffic fatalities caused by the rain in Northern California.

Swift water rescue crews saved five people who became trapped in raging flood waters, including a woman whose Ford Ranger was carried a quarter-mile downstream by an overflowing creek. Four people, including two homeless, were rescued from the Mojave.

"We've had extreme amounts of flooding. We already had some homes that came very close to being flooded," Martinez said. "And we're being told that tonight and tomorrow we'll be hit the hardest."

In Orange County, four hikers missing overnight in a flooded canyon in the Cleveland National Forest were rescued by helicopter after their car was trapped along swollen Trabuco Creek. Rescuers used a bulldozer to retrieve five other people who became stranded by the creek.

Residents who weren't trapped in flooding crept along freeways, dodging puddles downtown and doing last-minute holiday shopping.

The rain also dampened vacationers' plans. Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure canceled the daily fireworks and artificial snow that mark the resort's big holiday season, said Suzi Brown, park spokeswoman.

The Affleck family traveled from Queensland, Australia to vacation in Southern California with their two daughters. On Tuesday, they spent the day doing laundry and drying out their shoes after getting soaked during three days at Disneyland and a day at Universal Studios.

"The rain's been terrible. We still have to make the best of it, but it's hard," said Teresa Affleck, mother of 20-year-old Caitlyn and 17-year-old Heidi. "A lot of the seating and eating areas are outdoors and it's been very wet and cold."

The family was hoping for better weather Wednesday during a stop in San Diego before heading to Phoenix to round out their holiday vacation.

The rain was a boost for drought-stricken farmers and cities statewide that have been forced to patrol water use after three bone-dry years.

Water content in the snow pack in California's mountains was at 197 percent of normal and 169 percent of the average measurement for April 1 — traditionally the date when the snow's water content is at its peak, said Ted Thomas, spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources.

As the snow melts, that water will run off into reservoirs that feed the state's extensive agriculture and city water systems.

"It's just a good sign," Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin said.

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Associated Press writers Garance Burke in Fresno; Don Thompson in Sacramento; and Sue Manning, Robert Jablon, John Antczak and Raquel Maria Dillon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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