Monday, November 10, 2008

serious weather

A north-facing section of Yucaipa Ridge, Monday afternoon.

By Guy McCarthy

MILL CREEK CANYON - It's wet, cold and wintry in the mountains at the moment - and recent conditions may have been deadly.

Now brace yourselves for another change.

Dry winds and possible record-breaking heat expected later this week could mean more critical fire potential in the inland foothills and valleys, according to forecasters.

Meanwhile in the San Gorgonio Wilderness today, rapidly changing weather at elevations above 10,000 feet allowed a sheriff's helicopter crew to safely rescue two hikers from Los Angeles who had been stranded by blizzard conditions.

But shifting cloud cover in the high country prevented another helicopter crew from landing a deputy and volunteers to investigate what appeared to be wreckage from a recent plane crash on 10,459-foot Dobbs Peak, about a mile west of San Gorgonio Mountain, sheriff's and forest service officials said.

"There is a plane missing out of Hesperia, reported yesterday," sheriff's spokeswoman Jodi Miller said Monday afternoon. "But we do not have a tail number confirmation from the wreckage on Dobbs Peak. We do not know if that is the missing plane."

A sheriff's helicopter crew will attempt to land up to 10 investigators and volunteers at the reported plane crash site just after first light Tuesday morning, Miller said. Sunrise tomorrow is expected about 6:20 a.m.

"We were not able to insert anyone today because of the weather conditions," Miller said. "It was deemed not safe."

The plane reported missing out of Hesperia on Sunday afternoon had four people on board and they were returning from Baja, Miller said. She said the Sheriff's Department would not release any further information about the plane and those on board until investigators examine the reported wreckage on Dobbs Peak.

The rescued hikers, Cody Westhaimer, 29, and Josh Saxe, 27, both of Los Angeles, had intended to spend Saturday night on the 11,500-foot summit of San Gorgonio Mountain, Southern California's highest point. They were cut off from descent Sunday morning by blizzard conditions and eight to 10 inches of snow that fell overnight, according to Miller.

Westhaimer had a cell phone and sent a text message to his wife, who alerted authorities before 8 a.m. Sunday, Miller said. A helicopter crew landed a team of rescuers near the summit Sunday afternoon, and returned after dawn today. The hikers and rescuers were flown down to Mill Creek Ranger Station by 7:30 a.m.

Aside from snow, sleet and hail in the mountains, the cold front that moved across Southern California starting early Sunday also sent high winds hurling dust and sand across a vast region, from the Owens Valley to the deserts and lowlands of Riverside County.

The winds may have contributed to four deaths Sunday on Interstate 40 in San Bernardino County, though causes of the fatal, multi-vehicle pileup had not been released.

Gusting winds and sandstorms were present along I-40 before 9 a.m. Sunday, when more than a dozen vehicles crashed east of Barstow, according to the California Highway Patrol. Specific causes of the crash had not been publicly disclosed by the CHP as of Monday evening.

Four died in the pileup, including Faith V. Wilson, 66, of Fullerton, according to the San Bernardino County coroner. Wilson was a passenger in a Porsche Cayenne that got rear-ended in the multi-vehicle crash, according to the coroner.

The names of three other deceased victims had not been released, said Barstow-based CHP Officer Taj Johnson.

"There were approximately 13 vehicles involved, at least three of them were semis," Johnson said today. "Right now, even though it was windy with sandstorms out there, we don't know the exact cause. It could have been anything. Somebody not paying attention. Something other than the weather. It was mass confusion out there."

Tomorrow morning conditions may be ideal for a helicopter mission to the reported plane crash site on Dobbs Peak, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Don Atkin. The Weather Service routinely prepares a specific forecast for the San Bernardino Mountains and the San Gorgonio Wilderness.

"If there are any clouds, they should be high clouds," Atkin said Monday evening. Low-lying fog or cloud bands cloaking ridges above 10,000 feet should be unlikely just after sunrise Tuesday, Atkin said.

Later this week, with dry winds and potential highs in the 90s for inland foothills and valleys, fire weather warnings and watches may be necessary, Atkin said.

"It wants to be fall going into winter, but it just can't make it," said Bill Patzert, an oceanographer and forecaster for NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in La Canada Flintridge.

"Here in Southern California we're pretty behind the curve for rainfall so far," Patzert said today. "We're sticking with our forecast for a dry winter. It's good to see the mountain forests get some precip, but down here in the lowlands and chaparral we're dry as a bone.

"We're still in a race between the Santa Anas and the rain, and so far the Santa Anas have been winning."


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