Winter storm strands California drivers

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A winter storm brought California much-needed rain and even a rare tornado, but the breadth and severity of snowfall in much of the state caught drivers by surprise and left hundreds stranded on mountain highways.

A late barrage of snow forced the shutdown of a 60-mile stretch of Highway 58 between Los Angeles and Bakersfield late Tuesday, California Highway Patrol Officer Ed Smith said.

“Travel conditions deteriorated quickly,” Smith told KCAL-TV. “The freeways just aren’t safe to pass on right now.”

The snow brought hundreds of vehicles to a stop and sent the patrol and road crews scrambling to the scene, where they were helping drivers to slowly exit near Tehachapi. No injuries were reported. The highway remained closed this morning and officials don’t know when it will reopen.

A similar scene played out shortly about 300 miles to the north, where dozens of cars were either stuck in the snow or involved in accidents near the rural community of Sonora. About 50 to 75 vehicles became stranded or were in collisions on Highway 49 and nearby roadways when it started snowing heavily in the Sierra Nevada foothills, said CHP Lt. Scott Clamp.

“Travelers were just not prepared,” Clamp said. There were a handful of minor injuries, but no major injuries, he said.

The storm from the Gulf of Alaska brought the first significant rainfall to the region in several weeks, the National Weather Service said.

Periodic showers, including hail, hit the Bay area in time for the morning commute, while new snow fell in the Sierra Nevada, where ski resorts around Lake Tahoe were expecting up to 8 inches.

Flurries were spotted high in the hills in Oakland and in neighboring Berkeley, said Rick Canepa, a weather service meteorologist in Monterey. The top of Mt. Hamilton near San Jose and the tips of Mt. Diablo in the East Bay also got a dusting.

“While not a heavy snow by their standards, this is welcome snow for the Sierra,” said Jonathan Erdman, meteorologist with The Weather Channel.

Snow water content for the Sierra was running only 65 to 73 percent of average for this time of year, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

In the Sacramento area, a tornado with wind speeds between 40 to 70 mph was spotted north of Red Bluff shortly after 1:30 p.m., according to the weather service. It caused little or no damage.

More rain was forecast for the Bay area and for parts of Southern California. Authorities warned of more hazardous conditions for drivers on mountain and interior valley roads into today, when the storm was expected to move east.

Even though San Francisco saw highs in the 70s last week, California has had a colder-than-normal winter overall.

“We went from about 10 degrees above normal this past weekend to 10 degrees below today,” said Austin Cross, another weather service meteorologist based in Monterey. “We’re usually somewhere in the 60s, temperature-wise, at this time of year.”

San Francisco has gotten nearly 14 inches of rain since October, or about 85 percent of its normal rainfall during the fall-winter season, Cross said. Oakland received 83 percent and San Jose had about 80 percent, he added.

The far-reaching storm also was expected to bring rare moisture and colder-than-average temperatures to central Arizona. The metropolitan Phoenix area was expected to get up to three-quarters of an inch of rain as the storm moves inland, and temperatures were forecast to drop to the 50s, about 15 degrees below average.

The storm’s eastward march also was expected to drop as much as nearly a foot of snow as it moves into parts of Nevada, Colorado and Utah.

“This is also much-needed snow for the Rockies,” Erdman said. “Virtually the entire Rockies chain is in drought, with snow water contents as low as 62 percent of average in Colorado.”

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