The bitter tendrils of winter lashed out at an unprepared Washington area this weekend, burying the splendors of autumn foliage under snow all along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and dropping area temperatures to their lowest since last April.

Chill winds of up to 50 miles an hour scythed through bundled crowds on Washington streets yesterday, while outlying Montgomery County residents woke to find faint flurries of snow in their neighborhoods.

"You could catch the snowflakes in your hand," said Damascus corn farmer Donald Leisher. "It was the first snow I've seen this season." The winds "cleaned all the dust out of the corn," he said, leaving it unharmed, fresh and marketable.

It was an unsettling omen of things to come for Washington residents still talking about the rigors of the last winter, one of the coldest in decades. Weather forecasters, from the National Weather Service on down to those who compile the farmers' almanacs are not ruling out the possibility that this year's edition will be a cold one, too.

Along with the winds came rain - almost one inch of it - throughout much of the Washington area. The rainfall was welcome, however, as it helped to keep the dwindling Accoquan Reservoir in Northern Virginia, the region's prime source of drinking water, at a steady 96 feet above sea level.

"We're absolutely not certain" that the reservoir "is out of trouble," however, noted Fairfax County spokesman Edmund Castillo yesterday.

But Castillo called the water level "encouraging."

The county water authority is scheduled to decide today whether to buy 1.5 billion gallons of water from the city of Manassas. Water conservation measures remain in effect throughout the county.

But the overall impact of the rains will not be felt for at least another day, since it takes up to 48 hours after a rainfall before the runoff wends its way through creeks and streams to the reservoir, Castillo said.

Trees and heavy limbs knocked over by yesterday's strong winds blocked streets and downed power lines in parts of the District and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, officials said.

As many as 8,000 Vepco customers were without power much of the day, according to Milt Edson, a Vepco spokesman. He said Annandale was hardest hit. There, about 4,000 customers lost power when a tree fell over on a line at Roberts Avenue and Rt. 236.

Pepco reported scattered outrages in the District, Montgomery County and Price George's County affecting about 2,000 customers by late yesterday afternoon. Most of Pepco's outages in the District were caused by faults in underground cables, which were probably adversely affected by the heavy rainfall, Pepco spokesman John Grasser said.

The unexpected cold wave sent hundreds to the glove and scarf department at Woodward and Lothrop at 9th and G Streets, a store spokesman said. Coat shoppers have also been coming out in droves much earlier than usual in the fall season, according to Martha Payne, the store's public relations director.

"People are buying woolen coats with zip up linings and coats that come with scarves," she said.

Calls from customers wanting information about house insulation increased 50 per cent in the past week, Payne said.

National Weather Service meteorologist James Wagner said the severe winter last year may indicate that the Washington area is moving into a trend of cold winters, after it enjoyed a five year period of relatively mild winter.

"But," said Wagner, "sometimes you just get a cold winter by itself." He said the weather this fall will be the strongest indicator as to what sort of weather to expect come winter. He said weather patterns indicate that it will be colder than normal in the Northeast quarter of the country, from the Great Lakes states to the central Mississippi Valley and from New England to the northern mid-Atlantic states.

Milder than normal weather is predicted for the Southwestern United States while there is an indeterminate forecast for the Northwest and Southeast. Wagner said there is a 55 per cent chance that such predictions are correct.

Hundreds of motorists were stranded overnight on the 105-mile Skyline Drive, which extends from Front Ropal, Va., to Waynesboro, Va., Shenandoah National Park Service rangers reported. Hundreds more were left without electricity all night Sunday in the lodges atop the 3,600-foot drive after heavy winds downed several power lines.

The drive, which had been closed since 1:30 p.m. Sunday, was cleared of dangerous ice and reopened about 2 p.m. yesterday, the park service said.

Yesterday's cold wave was caused by a low front that originated in North Carolina, passed over the Washington area. Middle Atlantic and New England states, and is headed for Canada.

Th e front left a trail of snow in mountain areas from upstate New York to Great Smokey National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina.