SANTA ANA, Calif. – Californians braced Thursday for back-to-back weekend storms that could bring more than a foot of rain to mudslide-prone canyons denuded by the fall wildfires, dump up to 10 feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada and buffet the state with hurricane-force winds.
The first in a trio of storms began with sprinkles along Northern California coast, but the heaviest precipitation — and possibly the most rain Southern California has seen in three years — was expected Friday night and Saturday.
Forecasters issued a rare blizzard warning for the Sierra Nevada, with up to 10 feet of snow expected in some areas above the 5,000-foot level, and predicted 30-foot coastal swells by Saturday.
Winds of 75 mph to 80 mph could hit the San Francisco area by Friday, with hurricane-force gusts pummeling communities all along the northern coast, forecasters said.
"If you're not in the Sierras by this evening, don't go. It's a life-and-death situation," said Ken Clark, a senior meteorologist at Accuweather.com. "It's going to be an all-out blizzard."
In Southern California, the winds were expected to be less severe, but homeowners struggling to rebuild after October's wildfires braced for torrential rain that could bring flash floods and mudslides.
"You're going to have roads getting flooded, you're going to have water channels filling up. But in the burned areas, this could be disastrous," said Clark.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that officials will activate state emergency operations centers in Los Alamitos and Sacramento on Friday and have been coordinating with the California National Guard, the U.S. Coast Guard and local authorities.
Riverside and San Bernardino counties also deployed swift-water rescue teams.
Lowland areas around Los Angeles and Orange County braced for up to 4 inches and mountains in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties could see up to 9 inches of rain.
Some south-facing slopes could get downpours totaling 15 inches, including some areas particularly prone to mudslides after fires, Clark said. Mountains around Malibu could get up to 8 inches of rain, he said, and higher elevations in San Diego County could see 7 inches.
In the Sacramento Valley, power crews prepared for gusts up to 60 mph — the strongest in the area in a decade.
By Thursday afternoon, blustery winds had already forced some Sierra ski resorts to shut down lifts. At Alpine Meadows, four of 13 lifts were closed, said spokeswoman Rachel Woods.
Nevertheless, ski resort operators welcomed the storm.
"This kind of snow is not only great for skiing, but also ensures we're going to have enough snow for the rest of the season," said Rachel Woods, spokeswoman for Lake Tahoe resorts Homewood and Alpine Meadows.
In Southern California, wind gusts between 60 mph and 80 mph in the mountains and 20 mph to 40 mph in the lowlands were expected along with rain, Clark said.
In the canyons in Orange County, where a 28,000-acre fire burned 15 homes just months ago, winding roads were periodically blocked Thursday with work crews who cleared debris from culverts, stacked hay bales and gravel-filled bags and installed concrete barriers and plastic tarps at the base of hillsides.
The U.S. Forest Service used airplanes and a helicopter to spread "hydro-mulch" — a mixture of wood pulp and a gluey substance — on about 18 percent of the area burned in the Santiago Fire to keep soil in place, said spokesman Tom Lavagnino.
Canyon resident Steve Enochs, 52, said he put 80 hay bales around his backyard to keep water away from his home, which sits directly beneath a towering canyon wall that burned last fall.
"I'm worried. See that hill up there? This whole canyon's burned and there's a huge watershed up this canyon that's all burned too," he said. "It's a pretty dangerous threat."
Neighbor Bill LaBar, 45, seemed less concerned, but had still piled 1,600 sand bags and 20 hay bales around his property. He packed up a motorhome so his wife and dog could evacuate in case of flooding, but LaBar said he planned to stay.
"You take it with a grain of salt," he said. "My house has been here since 1928. Lots of stuff has happened since 1928 and it's still here, so the odds are in our favor, one way or another."
In Malibu, where a November fire charred 4,000 acres and destroyed 50 homes, crews placed tarps and sandbags.
The storms headed toward California during a year that has turned out to be the wettest in some time.
Rain levels in downtown Los Angeles were at 97 percent of normal this week after two years of extreme drought. In San Diego, rainfall had already exceeded normal readings with about six months to go before the end of the rain year, which runs from July 1 to June 30.
The storms also were potentially good news for the state's water supply, much of which comes from the Sierra snowpack. Snow levels along the 400-mile-long range were 60 percent of normal, according to the first of the state's annual snow surveys released Thursday.
That was little consolation to canyon residents, who evacuated for the wildfires and then twice more during heavy rains earlier this winter.
"I've lived here for 18 years and never, ever have we had anything like this happen," said Modjeska Canyon resident Wanda Myers. "I'm just hoping that we'll make it through this time."