* Some evacuees return home as rain tapers off
* About 20,000 still without power
LOS ANGELES, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Winter storms that have hammered California for nearly a week tapered off on Friday, but hundreds of people remained evacuated due to risk of mudslides and more than 20,000 homes and businesses were without power in the state.
As scattered showers continued across Southern California, evacuation orders were lifted in most of the neighborhoods north of Los Angeles where a huge wildfire last summer stripped hillsides and canyons bare, leaving them prone to collapse from days of drenching rains.
Some residents who live closest to the danger zones were told they would not be allowed to return until geologists determined that it was safe to do so.
Authorities said it was lucky that the ground held, with relatively minor mud flows washing into streets and damaging just a few houses, after five days of downpours.
“We dodged a bullet,” Neal Tyler of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said at a morning news conference.
Nearly 2,000 homes, including about 800 in Los Angeles city limits, had been evacuated as a precaution on Wednesday. The all-clear was given to every home in the city but one, and to roughly 60 percent of the rest, authorities said.
State Attorney General Jerry Brown, acting in place of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was traveling, declared a state of emergency in five counties on Thursday. Schwarzenegger returned on Friday to survey the rain damage.
Elsewhere, Californians mopped up from the strongest series of storms to pummel the region in five years. Four back-to-back storms unleashed torrents of rain, as well as hail, snow, gale-force winds and even tornadoes, flooding streets, closing highways, canceling airline flights at several airports and pounding beaches with waves as high as two-story buildings.
The storms were blamed for at least two deaths, including a 21-year-old man who was crushed by a falling tree.
But a huge snowfall in mountain ranges that feed the state’s reservoirs provided a silver lining, easing critical water shortages caused by a three-year drought.
Los Angeles County alone collected enough rainfall runoff to supply water to 150,000 families for a year, said county Public Works Department spokesman Bob Spencer.
But state water officials warned that it was too early to call an end to the drought, saying that one week of heavy rain was not enough to erase a three-year dry spell.
Meanwhile, utility workers in the San Diego area worked to restore power to some 10,000 homes and businesses, while more than 9,000 customers still had no electricity in and around Los Angeles. Scattered customers throughout the San Francisco Bay Area were also without power, according to a Pacific Gas & Electric outage map.
A commuter rail line was reopened in the Los Angeles suburb of South Pasadena after crews cleared a tree that fell into overhead power lines, blocking tracks in both directions.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer declared a state of emergency Thursday as rains drenched Phoenix and heavy snow cut highways in the north of the state.
The sheriff’s office in Yavapai County, north of Phoenix, said a 6-year-old boy was missing and presumed dead after he was swept away on Thursday when his family’s pickup truck got caught in floodwaters.
The storm in Arizona -- it was the most severe to hit the state in more than a decade -- also triggered power outages, and delayed flights at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. (Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix; Editing by Paul Simao)
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