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Death toll at 3 amid West Coast storms; levee breaks in Nevada, forcing rescue of dozens
Winter Storm Heal
Kevin Sullivan clears the snow from his car in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Saturday, Jan. 5, 2008. Thousands of homes and businesses had been blacked out in California, Oregon and Washington and thousands of residents had been told to leave their homes in mudslide-prone areas of Southern California. - photo by Associated Press

FERNLEY, Nev. - Still more snow piled up Sunday in the Sierra Nevada, where at least 5 feet had fallen from a storm that contributed to flooding in Fernley, killed at least three people and blacked out thousands of customers.

Forecasters predicted more rain and snow Sunday, but without the severity of the weather that has pounded the three-state region for three days.

Winter storm warnings remained in effect for some mountainous areas and the main highway through the Sierra Nevada was closed during the night. Residents were warned of possible mudslides in parts of rain-soaked Southern California where slopes had been denuded by the fall's wildfires.

A ruptured levee on a rain-swollen canal spilled a frigid "wall of water" into the desert town of Fernley on Saturday, flooding hundreds of homes and forcing the rescue of dozens of people by helicopter and boat.

No injuries were reported in the town about 30 miles east of Reno, after a section of the Truckee Canal levee up to 150 feet long broke soon after 4 a.m. Saturday.

As many as 3,500 people were temporarily stranded and an estimated 1,500 were displaced from their homes, Lyon County Fire Chief Scott Huntley said Saturday night. About 25 people remained at a shelter set up at a high school after a peak of about 150 earlier in the day.

Huntley, one of the first on the scene, described the flood as a "wall of water about 2 feet high going down Farm District Road."

Eric Cornett fled from his home with his wife and three children.

"We saw water coming in the back door and tried to grab as much stuff as possible to save it. The water was rising very quickly and it was scary," he said.

Two helicopters aided boat crews in rescuing at least 18 people from driveways and roofs.

The cause of the levee rupture wasn't clear, but one canal official suggested rodents burrowing holes in the earthen bank might have contributed to it.

Gov. Jim Gibbons declared the county an emergency area and the Federal Emergency Management Agency planned to survey the damage Monday.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared emergencies in three counties hit hard by the storms, and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski declared a state of emergency for one county that had severe wind damage.

In the mountains east of Los Angeles, authorities searched Sunday for a 62-year-old man who went hiking Friday afternoon just before the storm began, San Bernardino County sheriff's spokeswoman Arden Wiltshire said. The man used his cell phone Friday to tell authorities that he lost his sense of direction in the fog, but searchers last had cell phone contact with him early Saturday.

The area was hit with snow later that day, but the man is believed to be dressed warmly, knows the area well and has survivalist training from serving in the military, Wiltshire said.

At least 5 feet of snow had fallen on ski areas in the rugged Sierra Nevada by early Sunday, with 9 feet possible at some higher elevations, the National Weather Service said. As much as 3 feet more could hit the area by Tuesday evening, the weather service said.

Blizzard conditions in the mountains during the night prompted authorities to again close nearly 100 miles of Interstate 80 from about 30 miles east of Sacramento to just over the Nevada state line, but the California Department of Transportation's Web site later said it was open to vehicles with chains or with a combination of 4-wheel-drive and snow tires.

I-80 also was closed early Saturday because of the weather, and Saturday afternoon the weather was blamed for a 17-car pileup that closed westbound lanes just east of the Reno-Sparks area.

Some 311,000 Pacific Gas and Electric customers had no electricity late Saturday in Northern and Central California, the utility said. Fewer than 10,000 were still blacked out in the Los Angeles area. The storm also had cause blackouts in parts of Oregon and Washington.

One woman died when her pickup truck was swept into a flood channel east of Los Angeles, police said. Rescuers found her boyfriend clinging to a tree.

A falling tree killed a woman in Oregon, and a falling branch killed a transportation worker in Northern California.


Associated Press writers Aaron C. Davis in Sacramento, Gillian Flaccus in Santa Ana, Elliot Spagat in San Diego County, Samantha Young in Sacramento, Marcus Wohlsen and Jason Dearen in San Francisco, Scott Sonner in Reno, and Robert Jablon and Peter Prengaman in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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