It was the wind, not rain, that wreaked havoc across northern Santa Barbara County on Wednesday, as widespread gusty conditions downed trees, caused power outages and even blew the top off a large covered patio in Orcutt.

"We had more wind and slight showers [Wednesday], while rain on Thursday will be more steady and significant," said Kristen Stewart, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. Strong winds and heavy rain are expected to continue Thursday, as the "two-part storm" fueled by back-to-back systems of low pressure and a long and narrow corridor of moisture — dubbed an "atmospheric river" — passes over the Central Coast.

Several downed utility poles stopped traffic between Kern and Santa Barbara counties on Highway 166 near Cuyama, prompting a full closure just east of Highway 33. Cuyama Joint Union School District Superintendent Stephen Bluestein said students were dismissed early, at 1 p.m., due to the highway closure and concerns relating to the weather. Students on buses were reportedly escorted home by California Highway Patrol officers.

Caltrans spokesperson Jim Shivers said the highway was expected to reopen before midnight Wednesday.

In Santa Maria, crews from the city's Recreation and Parks Department responded to nine reports of downed trees and tree limbs. Though no injuries or structural damage were reported, city spokesperson Mark van de Kamp said crews removed a "medium to large tree" that fell on a car in the 600 block of North Thornburg Street.

"At this point, with the storms we've had, the ground is saturated, so weak trees are more at risk," he said, adding that Thursday's sustained winds and rainy conditions will continue to pose a risk to frail trees. The city will respond to nonthreatening tree hazards overnight and clear them in the morning to ensure public rights of way remain clear.

The Santa Barbara County Fire Department responded to a call just before 9:30 a.m. in the 1200 block of Ken Avenue in Orcutt that gusty winds had ripped off a large patio cover and blown it onto the roof of a home. No one was injured, and the cover was removed from the roof.

Several wind-related power outages were reported across the Santa Maria Valley on Wednesday, with as many as 2,600 Pacific Gas and Electric Co. customers affected during the height of the service interruption.

"We have an incredible disaster preparedness plan because we're in an area where disasters happen," said Kathy Webb, executive director for UCP Work, a group that provides services to Santa Barbara County residents with developmental disabilities. After a 10 a.m. outage knocked out power to their Santa Maria offices, Webb said staff members and volunteers began to evacuate their clients to other sites in the city that still had power.

"It's safety first," she added, "that's what we do here. We make sure everyone is safe, that they're feeling OK and are confident in their surroundings."

A wind advisory for the Santa Maria, Lompoc and Santa Ynez valleys has been issued through 3 p.m. Thursday, with forecasters projecting winds between 20 and 35 mph and gusts up to 50 mph across the region. Winds between 25 and 40 mph, with gusts to 60 mph, are possible for the San Marcos Pass and other area mountains.

Stewart said coastal cities and inland valleys are forecast to receive between three-quarters of an inch and 1.5 inches of rain Thursday. Rainfall totals in local foothills and mountains are expected to be higher, with areas projected to receive between 1.5 and 3 inches of rain.

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga


Education Reporter

Mathew Burciaga is a Santa Maria Times reporter who covers education, agriculture and public safety. Prior to joining the Times, Mathew ran a 114-year-old community newspaper in Wyoming. He owns more than 40 pairs of crazy socks from across the globe.