Easterners, at least those of us living south of New Jersey, can expect a milder-than-normal winter this year, while those out West figure to see the opposite, unless they live in southern California, Arizona or New Mexico.

That's the word from Donald L. Gilman, chief of the prediction branch of the National Weather Service, who in his annual winter forecast targeted Utah, Idaho and Montana for the coldest weather and the Southeast from Florida to South Carolina for the warmest.

Like all weathermen making long-range predictions, though, Gilman hedged most, if not all, of his forecasts.

"These long-range forecasts are generally 60 to 65 percent accurate, and we do better on winter than we do on summer," Gilman said. "But there will be a lot of flip-flopping around and none of these forecasts should be taken as a warning by people who live in the regions where we're expecting cold weather."

Having said that, he turned his attention to two regions where winter weather is often unpredictable and often abnormal. This year is no different, he said, with the Northwest likely to suffer temperatures 5 to 9 degrees below normal, and the East, from Florida to Maine, experiencing a "strikingly" mild fall.

"It's not uncommon for it to be warm in the East and cold in the West and vice versa this time of year," Gilman said. "What is unusual is the degree of difference. This is the coldest the Northwest has been in 50 years, and the East has had a very persistent fall, which is also very unusual."

Gilman said these conditions should prevail through February with some exceptions. He said the East's balmy fall is expected to come to a sudden end in the next two weeks as the cold weather now out West moves over the Rockies.

"We'll see a break in the fall pattern in the first part of December," he said. "This could mean very changeable weather in the Northeast in the next two weeks."

Currently, the dominant weather patterns in the country are high-pressure air masses off both coasts moving cold air south from Alaska and western Canada and warm air north from Florida and the West Indies, Gilman said.

He said he expects these patterns to persist, meaning it will be colder than normal in the West down to central Caifornia and warmer than normal in the East up to the middle of New Jersey.

"The Midwest and Northeast from New York on up are too close to call," he said. "We expect a lot of flip-flopping in these two regions. The potential for sharp changes in weather exist for the Midwest and Northeast."

Gilman expects more snow and rain than normal in Utah, Idaho and Montana and from the Great Lakes south in the Mississippi, upper Missouri and Ohio river valleys. He said the coldest and wettest parts of the country are in the Great Basin that centers on Utah and covers parts of Idaho, Montana and Colorado.

Gilman expects the best weather in southern Florida, giving it a 70 percent chance of a milder-than-normal winter -- as high an expectation as he offered for any region. He gave Utah and the Montana Rockies a 65 percent chance of a colder-than-normal winter.

Every year just before Thanksgiving, the Weather Service goes out on a limb and attempts to forecast the coming winter's weather. Gilman said the annual prediction results not from a long study by many meteorologists but from three or four weathermen who sit down together and discuss what they think.

Asked his opinion of the "Old Farmer's Almanac," which five months ago gave more or less the same forecast for winter, Gilman responded: "Quite a coincidence. I think that's all we can say."