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Worst Santa Ana winds in years to move cross-country

Strong gusts caused a blackout at LAX on Tuesday evening and meteorologists say the wind could become stronger on Wednesday. The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore reports.

LOS ANGELES - High winds flipped over trees and trucks and knocked out power to more than 300,000 California customers before moving inland early Thursday, where schools in a Utah town closed because of 100 mph wind gusts.

Some of the worst Santa Ana winds in years blasted through California Wednesday and Thursday, sweeping down through canyons and creating gusts of up to 80 mph through the night, with a 97-mph gust recorded Wednesday night at Whitaker Peak in Los Angeles County. High gusts Thursday morning topped 60 mph.

The National Weather Service issued high wind warnings and wind advisories for parts of California, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming.

"What's driving this is a large, cold low-pressure system that's currently centered over Needles, Calif. The strong winds are wrapping around it," weather service forecaster Andrew Rorke said.

The system will sit and spin counter-clockwise over the area for the next day, although "it won't be quite as hellacious" as on Wednesday night, Rorke said.

The pressure front will then begin moving cross-country, eventually bringing blustery weather to Oklahoma, Missouri and Indiana, he said.

An estimated 300,000 customers in Southern California were without electricity Thursday morning and about 26,000 more in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California. San Francisco was spared any blackouts but thousands elsewhere in the Bay area were in the dark.

"We're making a dent in repairs, but we don't know what the winds will bring later this afternoon," Mark Hanson of SoCal Edison said, reported NBCLosAngeles.com.

In Southern California, high winds blew over at least six semitrailers before dawn on highways below the Cajon Pass in San Bernardino County, said California Highway Patrol Officer Mario Lopez. One trucker was taken to a hospital.

Twenty-three flights were diverted and several delayed beginning Wednesday at Los Angeles International airport because of severe crosswinds and debris on runways, officials said. An hour-long power outage Wednesday evening affected all passenger terminals. The winds had died down by Thursday morning but some delays were reported in both arriving and departing flights, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said.

Northeast of Los Angeles, foothill communities were hard hit as the winds swept down the San Gabriel Mountains.

Pasadena closed schools and libraries Thursday and declared a local emergency, the first time since 2004. Fire spokeswoman Lisa Derderian said 40 people were evacuated from an apartment building Thursday morning after a tree collapsed, smashing part of the roof.

"We've had several fires, trees into structures, limbs down," Lisa Derderian, Emergency  Management Coordinator for the city of Pasadena, told NBCLosAngeles.com. About 6,000 people lost power in Pasadena, reported NBC.

In nearby Glendale, high winds ripped the roof off a restaurant.

Two house fires, possibly caused by downed power lines, critically burned one person, seriously injured three others and forced seven others to flee, Derderian said. There have been hundreds of reports of wires down, she said. Trees also fell and some roads are impassable.

Overnight, a tree collapsed the canopy of a gas station, but an employee shut off the pumps and no fuel spilled. Another tree toppled onto a car, trapping the driver, who was taken to a hospital.

"We probably have over 100 trees that are down and arcing wires and transformers that have blown," police Lt. Jari Faulkner told the Los Angeles Times.

Across the sprawling suburban San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles, hundreds of trees and power lines were down, many blocking streets.

Along Huntington Drive, a major, six-lane thoroughfare that carries traffic into downtown Los Angeles, nearly every traffic light was dark across a distance of more than 10 miles, snarling traffic during the morning commute.

In Arcadia, 15 miles east of Los Angeles, power was out and numerous large trees were blocking residential streets. The local school district closed all of its campuses, including the high school, three middle schools and six elementary schools.

The winds were colder but fiercer than the Santa Ana winds that often hit California in late fall, but they carried the same ability to dry out brush and push fires into conflagrations.

Los Angeles boosted its fire department staffing because of a red flag warning of high fire danger. Early Thursday morning, crews doused a 2-acre grass fire in a park near Occidental College. Downed power lines sparked the blaze in the midst of 80-mph wind gusts.

The National Weather Service’s red flag warning is in effect until Friday evening, according to NBCLosAngeles.com.

Dramatic (and operatic) rescues
In northwestern Los Angeles County, sheriff's deputies rescued two men trapped on a dam spillway near a 200-drop. The men had gone sailing in a 10-foot boat Wednesday but gusting winds kicked up a 5-foot swell and they capsized. They clung to the boat as high winds pushed them to the dam, according to a Sheriff's Department statement.

They were rescued and treated for mild hypothermia, and one man, a former opera singer, was so appreciative that he serenaded the rescuers with "God Bless America," according to the statement.

High winds in Utah overturned several tractor-trailers and knocked out power to more than 30,000 customers. Police asked schools to close in Centerville, Utah, where a 100 mph gust was reported Thursday morning.

In Wyoming, the prevailing winds usually come from the west but the storm is bringing winds from the northeast. The weather service said the shift in the winds could result in more damage than winds of the same magnitude from the normal direction.