SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A late winter storm that brought heavy rain and winds to Central and Northern California was blamed for at least one death and threatened to flood a popular beach boardwalk while a new storm was bearing down on the region.
Sporadic showers were forecast Thursday before another storm arrives late Friday with colder air that could dump more than a foot of snow in the Sierra Nevada at higher elevations.
The upper-level, low-pressure system bringing the second storm was expected to deepen across California and bring widespread rain and mountain snow to the south end of the state.
Up to 16 inches of snow was expected in Southern California mountains above 6,000 feet, and even the Santa Monica Mountains rising above the Malibu coast could see a light dusting, the National Weather Service said.
With heavy rains a possibility, the city of Pasadena announced that sandbags and sand would be available to residents at two fire stations. In Arcadia, Santa Anita Park officials postponed an important thoroughbred race, Sunday's scheduled $150,000 San Luis Rey Stakes, to March 25 out of concern that the track would be too soft.
A major storm would be a major turnabout for Southern California, where winter has largely fizzled. Downtown Los Angeles has recorded only 5.22 inches since the start of the rain-year on July 1. That's nearly 7½ inches below normal by this time.
The fatality in Northern California Thursday occurred after two vehicles, including one carrying four people, crashed into a downed tree on Route 13 in Oakland, the California Highway Patrol said.
The driver of one vehicle pulled into the median area, where he and his passengers left the vehicle. The tree was then hit by a truck that went airborne, and the driver who had left his vehicle was fatally struck while a passenger was pinned under a portion of the tree and later freed.
CHP spokesman Sam Morgan said the passengers and truck driver suffered minor to moderate injuries.
In Santa Cruz County, the rain brought the San Lorenzo River dangerously close to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, as the river cut through the sandy banks that normally separate it from the boardwalk on its path to the ocean.
Officials said they were concerned that river water would seep under the boardwalk, causing serious damage. Rushing water ripped apart a wooden staircase that goes down to the beach, causing several thousand dollars in damage.
Crews built up piles of sand and cut a new path for the river away from the boardwalk, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
"We think we got it pretty much under control," Kris Reyes, a boardwalk spokesman, told the newspaper. "We're pretty much in wait-and-see mode."
The river was fueled by heavy rains in the Santa Cruz mountains, which saw almost 15 inches of rain, said National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Mehle. The mountains of Sonoma and Marin counties were also hit hard.
"Things (Wednesday) just happened to line up," Mehle said. "We had very moist air coming off the Pacific, and as it got pushed up and over the mountains, it got wrung out."
A winter storm watch is in effect for the northern Sierra Nevada from late Thursday night through Saturday afternoon, with heavy winds and snow bringing periods of near-zero visibility.
The snow level on Saturday were expected to drop to about 2,500 feet, meaning some of the mountains around the San Francisco Bay area could see a dusting. Thunderstorms and hail are also possible.
The rain and snow provided some good news for California, which has been well below its average precipitation totals for the year. The state's snowpack was 36 percent of normal as of Thursday morning, up four percentage points from two days earlier.
That number is expected to go up as the colder storm system moves in this weekend, said Maury Roos, with the California Department of Water Resources.
"We're hopeful that what seemed to be a pretty grim year is going to turn out OK, although still quite a bit less than average," he said.