Snowy Saturday in mountains and 'scary' nights ahead for Valley citrus growers

The Fresno BeeDecember 7, 2013 

Snow in the foothills and rain in the central San Joaquin Valley created a winter wonderland for many Saturday morning, and a relatively restful Friday night for citrus farmers who've been protecting their crops from below-freezing temperatures since mid-week.

But the much-needed break for Valley citrus farmers ended Saturday night, when the freeze settled back in.

Saturday and Sunday nights will be "really scary for everybody," said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual.

Mandarins probably have some freeze damage because of their thin skins, Nelsen said, but now the thicker-skinned oranges are also in danger.

If wet fruit from Friday night's rain doesn't dry before freezing temperatures roll back in, exterior damage and ice marks are likely.

Valley citrus farmers -- tending to about 220,000 acres worth an estimated $1.5 billion -- have already spent more than $20 million to protect their crops from below-freezing temperatures since mid-week, Nelsen said, using tactics such as irrigation water, wind machines and helicopters to warm up the air and soil.

Fruit testing is already underway in some places to determine the extent of the damage. If damage is severe, which likely won't be known until at least next week, many growers will rush their fruit to juicing factories. But money made in juicing will only cover fruit-picking costs, Nelsen said.

WARMING CENTERS: Click here for a list of warming centers in Valley communities.

For residents in the foothills, the snow line Saturday dropped to between 1,500 and 2,000 feet, leaving a couple inches of snow in places like Coarsegold.

At China Peak, about seven inches of snow fell by Saturday morning, said weather service meteorologist Jim Dudley. There was no major snowfall in the area the rest of the day, he said.

With fresh snow, China Peak opened for visitors, but Megan Haynes, who works at Shaver Lake Pizza, said there wasn't a rush of snow-sports enthusiasts through town to take advantage of it.

"People usually wait until more than one road is open \," Haynes said. "They like to enjoy the snow, but not drive through it."

Although California Highway Patrol said there were no major weather-related accidents in the Fresno area Saturday, snow and ice briefly closed Interstate 5 over the Grapevine between the Valley and Southern California. Highway 58 through the Tehachapi mountains was closed Saturday morning, then reopened, then was closed again Saturday afternoon.

The overnight low in Fresno was expected to hit 28 degrees Saturday night, and as low as about 26 or 27 degrees tonight and Monday nights, said David Spector, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Hanford.

The storm dropped about 0.15 inches of rain on Fresno early Saturday morning.

Dudley said the storm was more cold than wet. And while it raised Fresno's seasonal rain total since July 1 to 0.73 inches, that's still far short of the average for this time of year -- 2.20 inches.

The reporters can be reached at (559) 441-6330, cgeorge@fresnobee.com or jrayburn@fresnobee.com.

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