January 3, 2011 / 12:36 AM / 9 years ago

Winter storm closes key highway in California

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Snow and icy conditions blamed for numerous car crashes in a mountain pass north of Los Angeles on Sunday prompted police to close a stretch of a major highway linking Southern California to the state’s midsection.

An eight-lane portion of Interstate 5 known as the Grapevine was shut down shortly before 1 p.m. local time as the latest in a series of early winter storms swept a region still soggy from its wettest December on record.

As much as an inch and a half of rain was expected to fall in some mountains and foothills of Southern California by Monday afternoon, with a foot or more of snow forecast at higher elevations.

The National Weather Service said an inch or two of snow was even possible on the high desert floor of the Mojave.

Steady showers unleashed by the storm renewed concerns about possible mudslides in hills and canyons already saturated from weeks of on-and-off downpours, especially in areas denuded of vegetation by brush fires last summer.

Los Angeles city firefighters on Sunday came to the rescue of one woman who was trapped inside her car overnight after a thick river of mud flowed into a street and engulfed the vehicle. Fire officials said the woman suffered from mild hypothermia but was otherwise in good condition.

But the biggest initial disruption from the storm played out about 70 miles north of downtown Los Angeles on I-5, where blowing snow, slick road surfaces and poor visibility triggered a number of minor car accidents through the Tejon Pass of the Tehachapi Mountains.

Worsening conditions prompted the California Highway Patrol to turn back traffic in both directions on the interstate, which is the main corridor linking Los Angeles County to California’s sprawling Central Valley region and points north.

A Highway Patrol dispatcher said it was the first closure of the Grapevine this season. It was not known how long the detour would remain in effect.

While snow was sticking to the ground at Tejon Pass, an elevation of just over 4,100 feet, the National Weather Service said dropping temperatures could bring snowfall levels down to 2,500 feet above sea level.

Stormy conditions were expected to linger over Southern California into Monday, forecasters said.

Editing by Peter Bohan

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