Big storm hits California, chopper saves homeless and dogs

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A pre-winter storm drenched California with rain and dumped nearly three feet of snow to help bolster the vital Sierra Nevada snowpack but also triggered mud flows, street flooding and the dramatic rescue Friday of two homeless women and 10 dogs from a river island near Los Angeles.

With thousands of acres of wildfire burn scars all over the state, authorities were warily monitoring barren slopes where parched earth soaked with rain can cause life-threatening mudslides.

Mud from the San Gabriel Mountains flowed into the foothill city of Duarte east of Los Angeles before dawn, affecting 18 homes where residents were told to not to leave, KCBS-TV reported. Firefighters rescued two people stuck in cars.

A helicopter was sent Friday morning to a homeless encampment on the small island in the San Gabriel River, where it hovered in rain between power lines as the two women, six puppies and four adult dogs were hoisted to safety.

When the Los Angeles County sheriff's air rescue crew arrived, one of the women was on top of a shelter and the other was standing knee-deep in water, said Deputy Brice Stella, a tactical medic.

Stella hoisted one woman up but the other wanted to stay because she feared her dogs would be left behind. Stella convinced her to go into the helicopter by saying he'd do his best to rescue the dogs.

The helicopter crew emptied two large bags normally used to store gear, then lowered Stella down with the bags.

"I was able to fit all the dogs," he said. "They actually looked well-cared-for."

Earlier, torrential rain fell on the coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles near the landmark Hearst Castle late Thursday and rockslides closed about 36 miles of Highway 1 in the region. Highway crews expected to have the scenic route reopened by midafternoon Friday. A weather station in the area recorded more than 5 inches of rain.

In the Sierra Nevada, the Tioga Pass entry point to Yosemite National Park received 35 inches of snow in 24 hours, the weather service said.

Building snowpack in the Sierra is critical for California's water supply after five years of drought.

Roads into Yosemite Valley were open again Friday after being closed overnight due to potential flooding. The Merced River crested below flood stage, resulting in no major damage to park roads or operations.

The storm entered the northern end of the state early Thursday and moved south, continuing to drop rain through the Friday morning rush hours across Southern California.

Downtown Los Angeles, in a part of the state that has been categorized as in the midst of "extreme drought," had collected 1.58 inches of rain from the storm by Friday morning.

Flooding submerged a large section of La Cienega Boulevard, one of the major routes to Los Angeles International Airport. Elsewhere in the county, a trucker was killed when a big rig overturned on a freeway early Friday.

In Hollywood, hundreds of people were pelted by rain for hours Thursday night as they stood outside trying to get into a rare Metallica concert at a small venue, the Henry Fonda Theater.

In Lancaster, north of Los Angeles, people out in the rain and wind were happy for the wintry holiday vibe.

"Just all of the sudden a little storm is kicking in," Kara McDonald told KTTV-TV as she shopped in an elf hat. "We can sit around the fire and drink some hot chocolate."

High winds in the Mojave Desert town of Victorville blew tumbleweeds into the air and send dozens or them covering the front yard of and entrance of a house.

The storm caused worry in some spots like burn areas, where fire station were handing out sandbags.

"We're concerned about mudslides and flooding," Los Angeles fire spokeswoman Margaret Stewart said.

Get out quickly if "things go bad," she urged residents of foothill and burned areas. "Don't take the risk of being trapped in a mudslide."

Earlier Thursday, the San Francisco Bay Area was hit with one of its heaviest storms in an already wet season, with a small town in the North Bay receiving nearly 7 inches of rain in 24 hours.

More than 100 flights in and out of San Francisco International Airport were cancelled and about 360 were delayed for minutes to hours because of weather concerns, said Brian Horne, airport duty manager.

Venado, a remote former lumber town west of Healdsburg, was hit the hardest as the storm moved from the North Bay into San Francisco and the Central Coast.

Some creeks in those counties were over flood stages.

San Francisco recorded more than an inch of rain in 24 hours, with areas further north seeing 2 to 4 inches and 5 to nearly 7 inches recorded in some areas of the Sierra Nevadas, along with at least one wind gust of over 100 mph.

In Healdsburg in Sonoma County, antique dealer Greg Sheldon said driving conditions were difficult.

"Some of our streets are flooded here. I had two feet of water in one of my lanes," said Sheldon, who works at Antique Harvest. "There's just tons of water coming off, the ground is so saturated right now. Every field is a big lake."


Bender reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writer Andrew Dalton contributed from Los Angeles.