Strong Winds Downed Trees and Power Lines in West

By | December 2, 2011

Some of the worst winds in years blasted through California this week, with the brunt off the gusts felt overnight on Wednedsday, sweeping through canyons, gusting up to 97 mph, and toppling trees and trucks while knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of people.

The winds were fanning fires in northern California, according to the National Weather Service.

The winds reached 123 mph at a ski resort northwest of Denver and topped 102 mph in Utah, NWS reported on Friday.

The Sacramento Bee reported that as of Thursday evening, seven fires had burned more than 130 acres in El Dorado County, and five fires had also burned more than 250 acres in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, all fanned by the winds.

High winds were also reported elsewhere throughout the West, including 100 mph gusts that forced a Utah town to close schools.

“What’s driving this is a large, cold low-pressure system that’s currently centered over Needles, Calif. The strong winds are wrapping around it,” weather service forecaster Andrew Rorke said.

NWS on Thursday had issued continued high wind warnings and advisories for parts of California, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico. The front will eventually bring blustery weather to Oklahoma, Missouri and Indiana, he said.

An estimated 300,000 customers in Southern California were without electricity Thursday morning.

“It seems like there’s been extensive damage across the county,” based on preliminary reports, said Bob Spencer, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

“It was a terrifying ride for me, coming here in pitch dark…and watching motorists take no notice of lights being out,” he said. “What the weather experts are telling us are that these probably are the worst windstorms to hit (the area) in more than a decade.”

High winds ripping through Utah overturned several semi-trucks on or near Interstate 15, and 54,000 customers were without power along Utah’s 120-mile Wasatch Front as high winds took down power lines.

Police asked schools to close in Centerville, where the National Weather Service reported a 102 mph gust. Mail delivery and trash pickup were cancelled.

San Francisco was spared any blackouts but about 26,000 customers were without power in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California.

In Southern California, high winds blew over at least six semitrailers before dawn on highways below the Cajon Pass in San Bernardino County, said California Highway Patrol Officer Mario Lopez. One trucker was taken to a hospital.

Twenty-three flights were diverted and several delayed beginning Wednesday at Los Angeles International Airport because of severe crosswinds and debris on runways, officials said. An hour-long power outage affected all passenger terminals.

The winds had died down by Thursday morning but some delays were reported in flights, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said.

Northeast of Los Angeles, foothill communities were hard hit as the winds swept down the San Gabriel Mountains. A 97-mph gust was recorded Wednesday night at Whitaker Peak in Los Angeles County. High gusts Thursday morning topped 60 mph.

Pasadena closed schools and libraries and declared a local emergency, the first since 2004. Fire spokeswoman Lisa Derderian said 40 people were evacuated from an apartment building after a tree collapsed, smashing part of the roof.

Two house fires, possibly caused by downed power lines, critically burned one person, seriously injured three others and forced seven others to flee, Derderian said. There have been hundreds of reports of wires down, she said. Trees also fell and some roads are impassable.

Overnight, a falling tree collapsed the canopy of a gas station, but an employee shut off the pumps and no fuel spilled. Another tree toppled onto a car, trapping the driver, who was taken to a hospital.

Along Huntington Drive, a major, six-lane thoroughfare that carries traffic into downtown Los Angeles, nearly every traffic light was dark across a distance of more than 10 miles, snarling traffic during the morning commute.

In Arcadia, 15 miles east of Los Angeles, power was out and numerous large trees were blocking residential streets. The local school district closed all of its campuses, including the high school, three middle schools and six elementary schools.

The winds were colder but fiercer than the Santa Ana winds that often hit California in late fall, but they carried the same ability to dry out brush and push fires into conflagrations.

In northwestern Los Angeles County, sheriff’s deputies rescued two men trapped on a dam spillway near a 200-drop. The men had gone sailing in a 10-foot boat Wednesday but gusting winds kicked up a 5-foot swell and the boat capsized. They clung to the boat as high winds pushed them to the dam.

They were treated for mild hypothermia.

Associated Press writer John Rogers in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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