Winter in LA: The joy of rain in a city famed for its sunshine

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America’s golden state is renowned for its hot, dry, sunny climate – and recently for drought and wildfires – so the BBC’s Dan Johnson was at least expecting a break from typical British weather when he was posted to Los Angeles at the start of the year. That’s not quite how it worked out.

Three months in Los Angeles. It sounded like a wonderful way to spend the winter. I had visions of weekends at the beach and afternoons by the pool. But I arrived to find it was raining. A storm passing through, I was assured. It would be gone in a few days and then the sun would shine. And it did.

But then another storm came in – and another, and another. I kept tuning in for the local TV weather forecast presented by a man called, I kid you not, Dallas Raines. There wasn’t a hint of gloom about his own sunny outlook and bright shiny smile but his map told a very different tale. Downtown Los Angeles saw more rain in January and February than during the whole of last year. It was welcomed by the locals. Refreshing, they said, and much needed to replenish reservoirs and ward off wildfires.

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Parts of California have experienced drought since 2011. But after 376 consecutive weeks the state has at last been declared drought-free. The LA River, normally just a trickle at the bottom of a concrete canyon storm drain, has been a gushing torrent, trillions of gallons of water funnelled but then flushed straight out into the Pacific Ocean. There was flooding in the north of the state. Mudslides buried homes on hillsides still cracked and scorched from last year’s wildfires. Roads are splitting open and the city’s soaring freeways are afflicted by potholes. Drivers panic because they don’t know how to deal with the wet conditions.

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A mudslide toppled this palm

People here are used to the weather being a constant, pleasant, mostly dry 20 to 25C, a reliable steady backdrop to LA life. Suddenly, though, it’s become a topic of conversation. People talk about the weather. Then they talk about how much they’re talking about the weather. Then finally they agree not to talk about the weather. Roofs are leaking after being pounded so heavily. Doors have swelled and filled their frames, drains have overflowed. Rainbows have become regular sights, hailstones a new threat.

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Man jumps over, or into, a large puddle in GlendaleImage copyright
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During one storm more than 1,000 lightning strikes were recorded. Trees came down. A plane was hit and had to turn back. The airport suffered a power cut. Snow was forecast even as low as the Hollywood sign. In the mountains ski resorts have boomed as long as the roads have been passable and the whole place is green, so green.

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The hillsides around LA are lush and the views are stunning. Forget “smog city” clouded with pollution, in between the showers the air’s been clear and fresh. I’ve had more time on the ski slope than the beach but I’ve also been out walking the hills and trekking the canyons taking in the beautiful transformation.

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Los Angeles is rarely recognised as a pretty city but when the rain stops and the clouds part it really has looked its best. And on the hills that rise from Lake Elsinore, about an hour away, Walker Canyon has been smothered with a blanket of bright orange poppies. They call this the super bloom. It happens most years, but few can remember it being so colourful, so vibrant and so widespread.

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Poppies at Lake Elsinore on 22 MarchImage copyright
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There were queues right down the freeway to take a look. The police had to block roads and divert drivers into a shopping centre car park where they were put on shuttle buses back to the canyon. I met a couple who travelled more than 400 miles (650 km from Utah. The crowds rivalled Disneyland, one reporter exclaimed. The portaloos overflowed and the fleet of ice cream vans was selling out fast as finally the sun shone and things began to warm up.

The orange coated hillsides were quickly covered in people desperate to capture this curious event, posing for pictures of themselves rolling amongst the poppies. Eventually the authorities had to restrict access as the crowds grew unmanageable and the flowers were getting damaged. And the tourists weren’t the only ones flocking. Millions of butterflies have been migrating through the state.

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Numbers of the Painted Lady butterflies hit an all-time low last year but now they’re back, fluttering streams of brown and orange, skipping on the breeze over the hills and through the suburbs of LA.

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Like the poppies, the butterflies might feel like a sign the dry times are over. But no-one’s under any illusions here. This state still faces massive issues with water conservation, the drought risk and the threat of more deadly wildfires.

And as I write this it’s started raining again. The rumble of thunder has been a familiar sound here so far this year. It may not be what I’d hoped for but it has done something to redress nature’s delicate balance.

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