Valley storms leave outages, accidents, floods in their wake

The Fresno BeeFebruary 28, 2014 

Storms rolling through the central San Joaquin Valley on Friday left a tumultuous wake: lightning strikes that sent one man to the hospital, thousands of power outages from downed electrical lines, and spun-out vehicles on flooded streets.

But beyond the hazards, the rainfall was welcomed by residents.

"We definitely need the rain," said Richard Matoian, executive director of American Pistachio Growers in Fresno. "It's not too little too late, but we certainly need a whole lot of more storms like this. We sure would have loved to see a lot more storms in the December and January period than right now, but again I'll say, we are farmers — we love the rain."

Storms brought the season rainfall total to 3.37 inches in Fresno as of 5 p.m. Friday — well below the 7.88-inch average for this time of the year, said meteorologist Cindy Bean with the National Weather Service in Hanford. The rainfall season begins July 1 and ends June 30.

By about 8:30 p.m. Friday, about 0.58 inches of rain had fallen in Fresno in the past 24 hours, according to National Weather Service readings.

Snow fell in some mountain towns like Shaver Lake, around 5,500 feet in elevation. Up to three feet of snow was expected in higher elevations of the Sierra.

A winter storm warning was in effect through 4 a.m. today at elevations above 6,000 feet.

On Friday, strong winds toppled many trees in the region, and a lightning strike ignited a palm tree in Reedley.

Lightning also struck a 36-year-old man near Raisin City, south of Fresno.

The man, who has not been identified, was hit about 11:15 a.m. near Manning and Garfield avenues, said Chris Curtice, spokesman for the Fresno County Sheriff's Office.

After oil derrick workers found the unresponsive man, he was taken to Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno.

Hospital staff confirmed the man's injuries — an entry wound near his left armpit and exit wounds around his feet — are consistent with a lightning strike, deputies said. His condition was unknown Friday.

Friday's storms were the second part of a three-prong storm system that first blew in off the coast Wednesday.

Rain showers are expected into today, with dry conditions back Sunday. A third band of rain might brush the Fresno area Wednesday night into Thursday, meteorologists said.

For farmers with flowering fruit trees, a major concern is hail — especially if it arrives in about a week, when most Valley fruit will be at a more vulnerable growing stage, said Dean Thonesen, vice president of Sunwest Fruit Co.

Thonesen sprayed a fungicide on his peach, plum and nectarine trees in Parlier before the storms, to keep away rot.

Hail was reported in some Valley locations, the National Weather Service said.

Severe thunderstorm warnings in the Valley expired Friday afternoon, but some isolated thunderstorms and strong winds could continue today — especially in southern parts of the Valley, Bean said.

On Friday, strong winds likely hit Fresno and Tulare counties the hardest, she said.

Power outages due to storms began overnight Thursday.

The peak was Friday afternoon, when nearly 8,000 customers in Fresno and Madera counties were affected, said Denny Boyles, a spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

By 8 p.m., PG&E reported 47 outages affecting 543 customers. A large outage near Reedley, affecting about 2,700 customers, was reduced to 208 by 8 p.m., and power was expected to be completely restored by 11 p.m., spokeswoman Jana Morris said.

Other areas hit with many power outages were in Tulare County, North Fork, Auberry and near Dinuba, Boyles said.

On Friday afternoon, Southern California Edison also reported more than 3,700 customers were without power in the South Valley.

An urban and small stream flood advisory was also in effect Friday in many parts of the Valley.

In Porterville, fierce winds toppled at least 10 trees, some downtown streets had minor flooding, and traffic signals stopped working or began flashing red.

In Visalia, manhole covers popped off due to surges of air pressure from rainwater filling up underground culverts.

Electrical poles also caught fire in some places — caused by wet mud on poles conducting electricity, Boyles said. Residents are urged to stay away from downed power lines and immediately call 911, then notify PG&E at (800) 743-5002.

As of Friday evening, there were some minor injury traffic accidents, but no major weather-related crashes in the Fresno area, said Axel Reyes, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol.

CHP officers were plenty busy with many vehicle spin-outs and traffic hazards, such as debris and branches, on roadways, Reyes said. The majority of spin-outs happen when motorists are traveling too fast entering or leaving the freeway, he said.

When driving in the rain, "slow down," Reyes said.

Slower speeds help keep vehicles from hydroplaning on wet roads or sliding off a freeway ramp.

For those driving into the mountains, snow chains must be carried.


Staff writers Marc Benjamin, Jim Guy and Lewis Griswold contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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