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California braces for next wave of heavy rain

California braces for next wave of heavy rain

December 22nd, 2010 in News

Kainoa Hall, 3, left, his mother Kiva Hall, right, and brother Aris Hall, 1, all of Redondo Beach, Calif., brave the rain Tuesday as they shop in Beverly Hills, Calif. The National Weather Service predicted another fierce storm would roll into Southern California beginning Tuesday night.

Photo by The Associated Press /News Tribune.

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, while authorities kept a close eye on the first sign of mudslides in the wildfire-scarred foothills across the southern part of the state.

So far, the inconveniences have 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 strip hillsides of the vegetation that keeps soil in place and burns up the leafy ground cover that acts 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.

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 of the county's fire authority.

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.

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.

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.