Bad Weather Breaks

Utility crews used a break in the weather Sunday to work on power lines downed by a series of fierce storms that whipped California, but hundreds of thousands could remain in the dark for days in the wake of high wind that toppled nearly 500 miles of power lines.

More than 145,000 homes and businesses in Northern California still were without power Sunday, ahead of rain and snow that were forecast to return again soon.

"The biggest issue is just the sheer magnitude of the storm that hit and the number of individual locations affected," said Jon Tremayne, a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spokesman. About 75,000 customers have lacked electricity since at least Friday, and some might not see power restored until the middle of the week, PG&E officials said.

But the Northern San Joaquin Valley on Sunday was mostly calm, officials said. The area received little rain and no power failures were reported by irrigation district dispatch centers in Modesto, Turlock, Manteca and Merced.

However, a few hundred PG&E customers were without power Sunday evening in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, said J.D. Guidi, a util-ity spokesman. He said they should all have power restored by today.

There could be some early morning rain today in the valley, said Weather Underground meteorologist Tim Roche.

Tuesday offers "the best chance of a good rain," he said. A storm will pass north of Modesto this week, causing intermittent showers.

Winter storm warnings were in effect for some mountain areas as more precipitation moved in off the coast Sunday. Interstate 80 through the Sierra was closed for several hours, and as many as four deaths across the state were being blamed on the fierce wind, rain and snow.

Lindsey Marie Erickson, 25, of Corona died when her pickup truck was swept into a flood channel in Chino, a San Bernardino County community east of Los Angeles after she and her boyfriend unwittingly drove onto a flooded road.

North of Sacramento, Milton Smith, 57, a Yuba County public works employee, died Friday night after he was struck by a falling branch while clearing a road.

In Sacramento, two bodies were found in a wooded area near a homeless camp, fire Capt. Jim Doucette said Sunday. He said the cause of death wasn't known, but friends at a nearby shelter told authorities they had advised the two men to leave before the storms hit early Friday, but they opted to stay behind.

Search crews continued Sunday to look for a 62-year-old hiker who disappeared during the storm in Southern California's San Bernardino Mountains.

The man left his weekend home in the resort community of Green Valley Lake on Friday afternoon just before the storm began, San Bernardino County sheriff's spokeswoman Arden Wiltshire said.

He used his cell phone Friday to tell authorities he lost his sense of direction in the fog, but searchers last had phone contact with him early Saturday, she said.

Seven family members were hospitalized after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning from a propane lantern they brought inside when their home in Willows, about 25 miles southwest of Chico, lost power during the storm.

A boy in the house woke up when he heard his sister collapse in the bathroom, Sgt. Jim Miranda of the Glenn County Sheriff's Department said. Sev-eral people were sick when they arrived at a hospital Saturday.

Emergency status in 3 counties

Utility officials warned against using gas-powered portable heating sources inside, saying it was extremely dangerous. A house fire Saturday in Sacramento was thought to be caused by candles used to light the home during the power failure.

Glenn County was one of three hard-hit counties where Gov. Schwarzenegger declared emergencies Saturday. Hundreds of residents were staying at shelters and motels until power was restored, and they may be without power until Thursday, Sheriff Larry Jones said.

In the snowy Sierra foothills, workers trying to restore power were forced to rely on snowshoes, all-terrain vehicles and helicopters to repair equipment in the most remote spots, utility officials said. About 90,000 customers remained without power Sunday evening, utility officials said.

"I've heard 2 o'clock today and I've heard Tuesday (for when power might return). There's so many places where the poles are down, where the wires are down, that I think it's just hard for them to know," said Bill MacLean, who had been without power since early Friday at his Dutch Flat home, about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento.

At the nearby Dutch Flat Trading Post, where the power has been off since Friday, customers used flashlights to shop for batteries, food and other supplies.

Utility crews were slowed by sporadic rain that moved through Saturday and Sunday, said Chris Capra, a spokesman for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. Some of its 14,000 customers might not get power until Tuesday, he said.

In all, more than 2 million customers from the Oregon border to Los Angeles lost power in the storms since early Friday.

Southern California Edison spokesman Gil Alexander said some 310,000 customers had experienced power disruptions since Friday night. On Sunday, about 500 were without power.

Thousands of Southern California residents still were being urged to remain away from homes that could be threatened by flooding and slides in wildfire-scarred canyons, though mandatory evacuation orders were lifted.

At Kirkwood ski resort near Lake Tahoe, about 11 feet of snow had fallen since the storms began. Dodge Ridge reported Sunday on its Web site that more than 4 feet of snow had fallen since Saturday morning.

National Weather Service meteorologist Angus Barkhuff said some parts of Northern California would get a reprieve from the rain and snow today. But in the mountains, "there's a chance of snow and snow showers all the way through Thursday," he said.

Authorities reopened a nearly 100-mile stretch of Interstate 80 through the Sierra that had closed for several hours early Sunday because of blizzard conditions, but were requiring motorists without four-wheel drive and snow tires to use chains. Some smaller highways remained closed.

The recent storms do not necessarily predict a wet winter for the valley, said Roche, the Weather Underground meteorologist.

"The best bet for this year is that it will be a pretty normal year," said Roche said. "It's been very dry up until about now. We just passed what would be considered normal."

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso contributed to this report.