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Official: Tree that fell during California storm kills grandmother

By Michael Martinez, CNN
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Tree kills woman reading bedtime story
  • NEW: 70-year-old grandmother was reading to 7-year-old girl when tree falls on tent, authorities say
  • NEW: Los Angeles will feel chill late in week
  • NEW: Icy conditions plague Arizona highways

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- A renewed Pacific storm was "a contributing factor" in the death of a 70-year-old woman in a northern California exotic-wildlife preserve, authorities said Wednesday.

The woman was reading a bedtime story to her 7-year-old granddaughter Tuesday night when an oak fell on their safari-like luxury tent in Santa Rosa and killed the grandmother instantly, authorities said.

"Obviously, the weather was a contributing factor to this tragedy," said Cyndi Foreman, a spokeswoman for the Rincon Valley Fire Protection District in Santa Rosa. "It was heavy rain in a short period of time and heavy winds and back-to-back storms."

The death occurred as a strong and cold storm system from the Gulf of Alaska moved into the West. Ice was causing headaches in Arizona and the National Weather Service said additional rains, heavy snow and winds would make the going rough over the next several days for residents in much of the region.

Gayle Falgoust of Madison, Alabama, was staying at the private 400-acre Safari West wildlife preserve, whose website says is home to more than 800 animals such as zebras, giraffes, cheetahs and endangered birds.

The safari-like tent had hardwood floors and a canvas covering, and the 350-square-foot cabin featured a bedroom, bathroom and outdoor deck, Safari West spokeswoman Aphrodite Caserta told CNN.

"It was very stormy last night," Caserta said Wednesday. "We had driving rains, and the rains were actually followed by heavy winds.

"There were numerous trees that fell throughout the county," Caserta added. "It was really a severe storm. There was no way this storm could be foreseen. It was an act of God. We are devastated, and we have the utmost concern for the family."

Caserta said Falgoust was participating in a grandparent-grandchild retreat, and last year, she brought another grandchild to the wildlife preserve, which describes itself as "the spirit of Africa in the heart of the wine country" of Sonoma County.

The 7-year-old granddaughter was picked up Wednesday by her parents, who are from Los Angeles, Caserta said.

This month's Pacific storms have made for the wettest December ever throughout southern California, according to National Weather Service recording stations at airports in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Camarillo, Santa Barbara and Santa Maria.

Weather specialist Stuart Seto of the National Weather Service said the latest rainstorm, pushed by a cold front out of the Gulf of Alaska, didn't produce major debris or mudslides.

Some of the heaviest rains missed areas prone to mud or rock slides because of prior wildfires, Seto said.

"It was a fast-moving storm, so we were lucky. No major debris flows (but) there were some little ones," Seto said.

The Alaskan front is expected to bring freezing temperatures to the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills, which could see 31 degrees on Friday morning, Seto said. That record low for that day was set in 1972 at 27 degrees, Seto said.

Wednesday night's temperature in downtown Los Angeles is expected to reach a low of 41 degrees, compared to a normal low 48, Seto said.

Los Angeles County is also under a high wind advisory until noon (Pacific) Thursday, where the coastal areas could see 25 mph to 30 mph winds with gusts of 50 mph in canyons and passes, Seto said.

Communities such as Highland in San Bernardino County were flooded again Wednesday because the ground is saturated with rain water, residents told CNN.

Highland Mayor Pro-Tem Penny Lilburn said more than 500 inmates filled and placed almost 150,000 sandbags outside homes and business to protect them from flood waters. The state inmates also removed "thousands of tons of mud and debris from out streets," Lilburn said in a statement.

Five homes were destroyed and nearly 75 damaged in Highland when water and mud rushed through the foothill town last week, authorities said.

Total damage, including the cost of cleanup and lost property value, could hit $17.2 million, according to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

"We feel very fortunate to have all these volunteers just help out, without even getting paid. They're just trying to do something good for the community," Cesar Garcia told CNN affiliate KABC.

Garcia spoke inside his home, still steeped in mud. Outside, unstable hillsides were covered in plastic while as many as 600 volunteers worked to clear the debris.

Last week, monsoon-like conditions overwhelmed southern California, creating flash floods that kept workers at home and businesses and streets knee deep in mud and water.

Meanwhile, ice and rain were putting a double whammy on Arizona Wednesday, officials said.

"It's bad out there. We are slammed, to put it in a word," said Bart Graves, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety. We have had more than 100 calls and a lot of slide offs [cars skidding off the road.]"

Portions of Interstate 17, the main artery between Phoenix and Flagstaff, were shut because large commercial truck rigs were sliding off the road.

"We are now recommending against all travel to northern Arizona," Graves said.

State Route 87 had a 20-mile back up due to a five-car crash.

Ice was particularly treacherous in Flagstaff and other northern towns in the state, Graves said.

CNN's Paul Vercammen contributed to this report.