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Frigid Storm Closes California Freeways, Drops Snow in Malibu

Snow snarled major mountain highways and even dusted Malibu on Wednesday as a cold storm hit parts of California. One person was killed by a wind-related helicopter crash, and an overflowing river on the U.S.-Mexico border led to the evacuation of nearly two dozen people, rescues of about 50 horses and the deaths of four others.

Styming thousands of commuters and travelers, snow shut Interstate 15 over 4,190-foot Cajon Pass east of Los Angeles and roads through the San Gabriel Mountains connecting metropolitan Los Angeles to the commuter suburbs of Palmdale and Lancaster in the high desert to the north.

Interstate 5, a major trucking and travel route connecting Southern California with the Central Valley and Northern California, stayed open over 4,144-foot Tejon Pass most of the day, with on-and-off Highway Patrol escorts, then finally was shut down in the afternoon as conditions deteriorated. Massive backups developed below all the passes.

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Calen Weiss, 19, of Tarzana, his brother and two friends wanted to go snowboarding at Big Bear in the San Bernardino Mountains but instead got stuck on I-15 in Cajon Pass for an hour as visibility fell to about 40 yards.

"It looks like Whoville, all snowy, but with less joy and more extreme misery," he said by phone from the Summit Inn.

Heavy rain also fell in some parts of Southern California through the day.

Near the California-Mexico border, San Diego firefighters and lifeguards evacuated 21 people along the overflowing Tijuana River, said spokesman Maurice Luque. They included 12 to 15 people who were on high ground outside a home, surrounded by up to 4 feet of water.

Five people were taken out by helicopter, while others were escorted in Border Patrol all-terrain vehicles, Luque said. Three men were taken to a hospital for treatment of hypothermia.

About 50 horses also were evacuated, but three others drowned and one was euthanized after tripping on barbed wire, Luque said.

To the east, several vehicles collided and slid into ditches on Interstate 8's mountainous grades as heavy snow fell at the San Diego-Imperial County line. Other vehicles were stuck on the steep upgrade, their wheels spinning on the snow-packed surface, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Blowing snow, slush and ice prompted the Antelope Valley Transit Authority to cancel all its local buses, along with 18 commuter runs that usually carry some 650 people from the Palmdale-Lancaster area down to Los Angeles and back home.

The regional Metrolink rail system agreed to carry bus commuters who had already reached Los Angeles back home, spokesman Francisco Oaxaca said.

However, trains were ordered to proceed slowly because of the snow. Two trains also were delayed around 45 minutes at midday because engineers could not see the red, green and yellow track signals.

It was the first time in his 15 years with Metrolink that snow had caused such problems, Oaxaca said.

Transit agencies in the East have special equipment to clear tracks and otherwise handle snow but "we're not equipped for this kind of weather on a consistent basis in this part of the world," Oaxaca said.

In the Santa Clarita area north of Los Angeles, a wind gust caused a helicopter to crash, killing an electrical worker on the ground and leaving the pilot with minor injuries, county fire Inspector Frank Garrido said.

The helicopter was hired by Southern California Edison to string electrical lines between power poles in the Bouquet Canyon area.

"It was hovering above the ground. A gust of wind made the helicopter spiral," Garrido said.

Garrido said the accident report stated that the dead man was an Edison employee, but utility spokesman Steve Conroy said the victim was employed by the company operating the helicopter.

Late in the afternoon snow fell in the Malibu area.

"It's a combination of snow and rain, so none of the snow is sticking on the ground," said Craig Levy, director of a juvenile detention camp near Mulholland Highway. "It's kind of cool if you think about it. It's kind of unusual to see snow in Malibu."

More severe cold was on the way, the National Weather Service said.

Freeze warnings were issued for late Wednesday through Thursday morning for the Sacramento Valley, the northern San Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta region, among others.

"A freeze warning means subfreezing temperatures are imminent or highly likely. These conditions will kill crops and other sensitive vegetation," the NWS said.

Freeze warnings were also issued for north San Francisco Bay area valleys, and a combination of frost advisories and freeze warnings were issued for parts of southwestern California.

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