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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Cooler, wetter weather brings California a moment of relief

Surfers and tourists in Long Beach, Calif., watched waves from Tropical Storm Kay hit the shore on Saturday.

By Jill Cowan, Kellen Browning and Vik Jolly

For more than a week, Californians endured a heat wave that smashed records, pushed the state’s energy grid to the brink and parched the landscape, creating conditions ripe for catastrophic wildfires. Several new blazes ignited and quickly burned through bone-dry vegetation, sending thousands fleeing from their homes.

So residents felt exalted when Saturday arrived cooler and wetter than the days before.

“Thankfully, this historic heat wave is coming to an end,” said Cory Mueller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento, where temperatures reached a record 116 degrees Tuesday. “It’ll almost feel cold out there today compared to last week.”

He added: “That’s obviously kind of a joke, because it’ll still be in the 90s.”

Temperatures in Southern California were mostly in the 80s on Saturday, and forecasters predicted scattered showers through the weekend from the remnants of Tropical Storm Kay.

Across the region, residents saw gray skies and stepped into warm, damp weather that felt more like the weather in a rainforest than the baking sunshine they had grown accustomed to.

The arrival of the storm Friday — one of the closest approaches of an intact tropical cyclone to California in decades — caused some hiccups across the region, largely because any rain this time of year is unusual. (For instance, 0.61 inches of rain fell in San Diego on Friday, breaking the record for that date of 0.09 inches, set in 1976, according to the weather service.)

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the nation’s biggest public utility, warned customers about power outages caused by falling branches or palm fronds knocked off trees by the first significant rainfall in months. On Saturday, the agency said crews were working as quickly as they could to restore power to tens of thousands of customers.

Coastal flood advisories were in place Saturday in some low-lying beach and island communities, while a flash flood watch was in effect in the southeast corner of the state, the weather service said.

Although there were some toppled boats and muddy parking lots in beach towns where high tides sometimes inundate streets, significant flooding wasn’t reported in Southern California.

For firefighters and residents facing the state’s most dangerous active blazes, the weather Saturday prompted sighs of relief — even if climate change ensures that any respite from dangerous fire conditions in California is temporary.

In Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, officials had expressed concerns that the rare brush with a tropical storm would make it much more difficult to fight the Fairview fire, which killed two people and injured one more as they tried to flee the fast-moving blaze not long after it started Monday. Officials were worried that the storm would bring winds that would fan flames and that heavy rain could trigger flash flooding and mudslides on fire-scarred hillsides.

But by Friday evening, officials said that winds were much less intense than feared. And overnight, steady rain helped firefighters control the blaze, which had burned more than 28,300 acres and had destroyed or damaged about 30 buildings as of Saturday morning.

“There was fairly heavy rain overnight — probably the brunt of what Tropical Storm Kay was going to bring — over the area,” said Rob Roseen, a spokesperson for Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency.

There were no reports of mudslides in the region.

The Fairview fire was 5% contained by Friday morning. By Friday night, it was 40% contained, according to officials, and some evacuation orders had been eased to warnings.

Maryann Tassone spent two nights at an evacuation shelter in Hemet, not far from the blaze. On Saturday, she was arranging transportation home for her bedridden mother after the evacuation order for her parents’ mobile home park had been lifted.

Although Tropical Storm Kay did not end up exacerbating the fire that had sent her family fleeing, Tassone, 58, said she was not comforted by the weather patterns.

“I am scared that the weather is going to take us down eventually,” Tassone said. “Whether it is super hot, or whether it is super cold, raining or whatever, but if you notice every incident that’s going on anywhere in the United States is because it’s weather-caused. That’s scary.”

Late Saturday afternoon, state fire officials said that a privately owned helicopter that they had contracted to help with firefighting efforts crashed as it was landing at a nearby airport. The three people on board, a pilot and two firefighters, sustained moderate injuries and were taken to a hospital. Roseen said he did not have information about what may have caused the crash.

The rain did not reach the Sierra Nevada foothills northeast of Sacramento, where the explosive Mosquito fire continued to rage uncontrolled, but authorities said that the cooler temperatures and humidity Friday and through the weekend were creating a crucial window for getting a handle on the blaze.

“Are we out of the woods yet? No, there’s still a long firefight ahead of us,” Rob Scott, a fire behavior analyst at the U.S. Forest Service, said Saturday. But he added that the cooler weather and cloudiness were encouraging: “That’s going to help firefighters get a toehold in the environment and start containing the fire,” he said.

On Friday night, the fire continued to grow, and by Saturday it had burned almost 34,000 acres, but officials said the fire’s recent spread had been slower than it had been in previous days.

Earlier in the week, experts had been alarmed by a pyrocumulus cloud that formed because the Mosquito fire was sending plumes of smoke and ash spewing 40,000 feet into the air.

In Cameron Park, a community southwest of the Mosquito fire where many of the roughly 6,000 people ordered to evacuate had gathered at a community center, some said they were hopeful.

“Thursday, it felt like it was extremely scary, because the fire was spreading really quickly,” said Olivia Moreno, 33, who fled Garden Valley with her family. Now, “I’m feeling a little bit better,” she said.

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