Southland thunderstorms drop hail and start fires

A storm moves through Lancaster. On Saturday afternoon, a storm in the Antelope Valley brought hail, heavy rain and flash flooding. (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles Times / September 11, 2011)

A Southern California heat wave ended with a bang Saturday as erratic thunderstorms whipped across the region, dropping quarter-size hailstones, flooding roadways and igniting dozens of small fires with lightning strikes.

The brunt of the high winds and heavy rains moved out of the area and into Kern County by the end of the day, but unpredictable storm activity is expected to swirl around the region through Monday, forecasters said. The weather could return to the deserts and mountains of northern Los Angeles County.

“With this type of an event, thunderstorms can pop up and dissipate at random almost anywhere,” said Curt Kaplan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The heavy storms caught many by surprise when they moved into western and northern Orange County about 8 a.m., bringing thunder, lightning and hail and causing isolated power outages.

“We heard the thunder and then all of a sudden we heard on the roof the slamming of the hail,” said Costa Mesa Police Officer J. Horn. “They were good-sized hail — like big shooter marbles.”

The storms continued on and off through the afternoon, cropping up in Westminster, Woodland Hills and the Antelope Valley. Lightning, not a common sight in the Southland, struck frequently throughout the day, sometimes hitting homes, trees and power lines.

Firefighters responded to numerous lightning-caused fires in the Inland Empire. In Westminster, Los Alamitos and Stanton, the strikes downed power lines, felled trees, set utility poles on fire and sparked small blazes in backyards. “It went through and did a pretty good number on us,” Orange County Fire Capt. Marc Stone said.

Lightning sparked a handful of fires around Los Angeles — most of them smoldering trees and rooftops that went out by the time firefighters arrived, said Brian Humphrey, a spokesman for the city’s fire department.

In Kern County, firefighters battled more than 50 brush fires that broke out throughout the day.

The patchy, fast-moving storms dropped hit-and-miss showers on the region, with nearly an inch of rain falling in Palmdale. But it left some areas, such as East Los Angeles, Pomona and Long Beach, with no inclement weather at all — just cool air and overcast skies.

By Saturday afternoon, another severe storm had moved northwest into the Antelope Valley, bringing hail, heavy rain and flash flooding. Firefighters in Palmdale assisted motorists who were stranded in roadways that had become rivers. The California Highway Patrol closed two southbound lanes of the 14 Freeway near Avenue S after they flooded midafternoon.

Quarter-size hail fell in the Antelope Valley community of Lake Los Angeles, which also experienced flooding.

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