The first snow of the season began falling in the Washington area late last night and by the early morning hours, it was swirling thick and fast, particularly in southern and western sections.

"It's snowing like crazy," said David Patterson, a Fairfax City police dispatcher.

"They're beautiful!" exclaimed Betty McGinn of Hillcrest Heights as she watched thick flakes fall through the tree branches in her back yard.

The National Weather Service said it expected accumulations to reach two to four inches by 7 a.m, and as the roads grew slicker early this morning, police radios began crackling with accident reports.

Last night's snow and the plunging temperatures and fierce north winds predicted for today made a keen and bitter contrast with the record-breaking high temperatures of last weekend.

Where temperatures had soared into the 70s only a week ago, lows tonight were expected to plummet as far as 15 or 20, and today's winds were expected to whistle a wintry 25-mile-an-hour tune at times, although the first official day of winter is still nine days off.

Last night's snow was produced, according to the weather service, by a low pressure area that was moving north and eastward along the Atlantic Coast from the southeastern part of the nation.

Snow reached the Richmond area before arriving in Washington, and as much as four inches was expected to accumulate there by today. Snowfalls of two to four inches were also predicted in Delaware and in the Baltimore and Annapolis areas.

In the Washington area, the snow was first reported in Loudoun and Prince William counties.

Yesterday's official high temperature here was 42 degrees, recorded at National Airport at 9:50 a.m. By 1 a.m. today, the mercury had dropped only six degrees, but snow was falling onto wet and glistening streets. In the next hour, the temperature dropped only one more degree, but a gray coating of slush began forming.