BELLEMONT, Ariz. – Two tornadoes touched down in northern Arizona early Wednesday, derailing 28 cars of a parked freight train, blowing semis off the highway and smashing out the windows of dozens of homes. A third touched down later, but there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.
The first tornado hit Bellemont — west of Flagstaff — around 5:30 a.m. Wednesday and the second touched down east of the small community a short time later. The third was reported along Interstate 17 just south of Flagstaff around noon.
Fifteen homes in Bellemont were so badly damaged that they were uninhabitable and the estimated 30 people who lived in them were evacuated. Authorities were setting up a shelter at midmorning Wednesday, said Coconino County Sheriff's Office spokesman Gerry Blair.
About 30 RVs were damaged at a business in Bellemont that sells the vehicles and runs a campground for RVs.
No serious injuries or deaths were reported. Two crew members were on the train when it was cast off the tracks around 6:30 a.m. PDT, said Burlington Northern-Santa Fe spokeswoman Lena Kent, but neither was hurt.
The train was hauling cargo from ports in Los Angeles to the east and contained no hazardous materials. The derailed cars are blocking both main rail lines through the area, and the railroad expects to reopen one of the lines by midnight.
In the Baderville area, authorities had to pull a family out of a home where they had been trapped because of damage from the tornado. It wasn't known whether anyone was trapped in homes in the Bellemont area, which is about 20 miles west of Flagstaff.
Severe weather is expected to continue through Wednesday, and comes a day after storms swept across the western U.S., dropping record-setting rain in northern Nevada, pounding Phoenix with hail, and dumping enough snow at the top of the Sierra to close a mountain highway pass.
Arizona has been hit hard since Monday by thunderstorms spinning off a low pressure system that has been parked over Central and Southern California. On Tuesday, a series of storms ripped out trees and broke windows in metropolitan Phoenix, flooded roadways, shut airports and brought hail as large as 2½ inches.
Besides the three confirmed tornadoes, the National Weather Service says, radar shows many more likely formed. Arizona has on average only four confirmed tornadoes a year.
"Flagstaff has exceed that in a matter of hours," said NWS meteorologist Ken Waters in Phoenix.
"The hammering that northern Arizona is getting right now is exceptional," Waters said. "It's not uncommon this time of year to have one or two tornado reports or a warning, but this is quite an outbreak for them. It's very, very unusual."
A tornado about 60 miles west of Phoenix in July demolished a mobile home, tore some roofs off, and picked up a commercial trash bin and tossed it onto a roof, Waters said.
The storm system was expected to weaken throughout Wednesday as it drifts northward, arriving in northern Nevada around noon Thursday.
Still, much of central and northern Arizona will remain under a tornado watch, meaning tornadoes are possible, until 5 p.m. Wednesday. The National Weather Service said Reno, Nev., and Sacramento, Calif., should see thunderstorms throughout the day.
Rainy weather snarled freeways and caused power outages in Southern California, and the National Weather Service said a storm could dump up to inch of rain in some areas before tapering off Thursday.
A big-rig that jackknifed on a slick freeway Wednesday morning backed up traffic for miles through the Newhall Pass on Interstate 5, the main road between downtown Los Angeles and the bedroom communities of the Santa Clarita Valley. No injuries are reported.
Southern California Edison says rain shorted out an insulator, leaving 1,200 customers without power in Long Beach.
In Nevada, a semi skidded into the motorcycle of the Swiss rock band Gotthard's frontman, Steve Lee, killing him.
Snow forced the closure of California Highway 89 at Monitor Pass south of Lake Tahoe on Tuesday and Wednesday. Chains were required again Wednesday on the Mount Rose Highway connecting Reno to Incline Village. A three-car crash sent one vehicle over the side of an embankment on the slippery, windy highway Wednesday morning, but no one was hurt.
Two southern Utah teenagers regained consciousness at a Las Vegas hospital Wednesday after being struck by lightning outside their school a day earlier. Christopher Dane Zdunich and Alex Lambson, both 17, suffered burns and internal and external injuries when a bolt of lightning hit a tree they were standing under during a thunderstorm shortly before 3 p.m. Tuesday.
They are students at Snow Canyon High School in Santa Clara, near St. George. An administrator, resource officer and others rushed to the boys after the lightning strike and moved them inside the school, where they performed CPR until emergency responders arrived. The boys were taken to a Utah hospital, and were later flown to Vegas.
Zdunich's twin sister Kendle told The Associated Press Wednesday that her brother remains in critical condition. Lambson had also been listed in critical condition, but an update wasn't immediately available Wednesday afternoon.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press Writers Jacques Billeaud, Mark Carlson and Bob Christie in Phoenix and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas.