Cyclone Road


Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The National Chaser Convention is scheduled for February 17-19 in Denver. I've enjoyed this event each time I've attended and plan to go again in 2006. The presentations are pretty good, usually, but the real benefit is hanging out with people you might only spend ten or fifteen minutes talking to on the side of the road each year. They've trimmed the video segment down so it's not such a marathon, and the solid met-based talks always remind me to begin thinking like a forecaster again after the long winter. I usually return home excited about digging up new papers, thinking about my gear, and imagining what the next chase season may hold in store.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

A transformer between Jasmine Street and Bonnie Brae was damaged in the heavy winds tonight and began showering the dry field below with sparks at about 2330z. A huge grass fire broke out and spread rapidly on the gusts. I went outside and watched it for a while when it was still about two hundreds yards or so from my house. At some point, it reached a sort of critical mass and sort of exploded in every direction, like nothing I've ever seen before.

Within twenty seconds, a wall of fire raced for the empty lot across the street from my house and the entire plot was burning instantly. Fire hit the front yards of the houses on the cross street (Laurel) and raced up the row of homes. The fire had to be moving more than forty knots. Glowing red embers rained down on my my very dry lawn, so I turned back inside and threw the cats in their cages (after quite a scuffle with Oreo), grabbed a photo of my parents, my novel, and my chase tapes and put everything in the truck.

While collecting things, I paused a second to glance out the window and all I could see was thick smoke and fire in three directions, and embers floating into my yard, bushes, and screened-in porch. I was 90% sure the yard would catch fire and 50% sure some part of the house would burn. I guessed there was a fair chance the whole house would go. That was a sinking feeling, imagining what life would be like with all my shit burned to nothing.

The fire department arrived while I was chasing the cats, but they didn't stand a chance until the winds died down a little. Finally they beat back the fire directly across from me, but two more broke out to the north and south of the original spot. The houses across the street and about four doors down saw flames within a few feet of their backyards, and the residents came running down the street to alert the firefighters who were more or less congregated near the dead-end (for those who remember my place) and in front of my house, where the hydrant made me a popular stop. After an hour, they gained the upper hand until all I could see was a row of hay bales burning in the field where it all started. That was a weird image: circles of fire surrounded by smoke. The hay bales burned for a solid two and a half hours.

At the peak, there were three large fire trucks, two smaller ones, an ambulance, and a UNT police car right on the corner here. As I write this, the UNT cop and one truck are still out there and my house reeks of smoke. I have to say, guys, it was touch and go for a while. It really looked like several houses here would go and the fire department was no match for the wind-borne flames. I give those guys a lot of credit for not allowing a single structure in this neighborhood to catch fire. Considering how much fire there was and for how long, it's remarkable. They got in the fire's face and stood their ground. The smoke was thick and choking but those guys hardly seemed to notice. Not so for me; I was trying to talk to friends in the neighborhood on my phone and could barely speak. I've got a doozy of a headache at the moment, but sitting here typing on the PC sure as hell beats living the next several months at the Best Western.

Oh, and while the transformer was blowing sparks, the power fluctuated and I think ruined my PCMCIA card slots in my computer. I don't know what else it could have been. They were working fine and now the slots do not recognize (or even send power to) any device I insert there. I guess this is the final straw for the laptop.

Time to prepare for my classes. I guess if the house had burned, I could cancel tomorrow, but oh well...

Friday, November 25, 2005

A few chasers are discussing a severe weather setup in a day or so. One of the things I've noticed about growing older in chasing is that I'm far less inclined to take big gambles on out-of-season chase days. I'm not saying that this particular setup is a big gamble necessarily---I haven't looked closely and don't know much about it---but I know what month it is. I know we're getting table scraps these days in terms of solar radiation in North America, and it was dark as pitch by 23z, so I guess the sun is going down around 2245 or so here.

I deduct points from a setup the farther away it occurs from climatological maxima, too, particularly if I'm looking for isolated supercells and tornadoes, which I always am. I take more points away if they're forecast in difficult terrain. So a Missouri/western Arkansas/Eastern Oklahoma chase in late November with possible moisture problems might as well be on the moon. You might as well be talking about the Red Spot on Jupiter.

It seems to me that outside climatologically favored timeframes, things often go very wrong with model-based severe potential in the 48-72 hour range. I learned some of this the hard way when I lived in Indiana and had to base chase decisions on 36 hour output.

By contrast, in May and June, a weaker-looking setup will often deliver more potential on Day 1 than anticipated, like June 6th this year in Central Nebraska. The Arthur tornado day was a classic example of how a conditional, marginal setup on the models became more substantial as the forecast period approached: instability values were higher, the cap suddenly looked breakable, and the disturbance moving over the region was stronger. It has been suggested, too, that short range models frequently underforecast 500 mb level winds, a critical component to plains severe storm environments.

But from December to mid-March, I'm suspicious when the models show a 'spring-like' setup. It's not that you can't have thunder, or a damaging squall line, but what you need for those events as opposed to slow-moving, isolated supercells with tornadic potential is often a markedly different set of ingredients.

That being said, we've had more than a few serious events with multiple tornadoes this Fall. Chasers are optimists and young chasers especially so. That's just the way they should be. If this late-season scenario delivers the goods, I'm certain a few chasers will be around to watch. I'll look forward to their video on the internet.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

I guess through the miracle of RSS people can stay tuned to blogs that go off the air for months at time. With news readers, new entries are pushed to a subscriber and he or she doesn't have to surf around various blogs checking for updates. Pretty cool. It also makes for a surprise when so many people are still reading the blog. I took a lot of questions about my entry a few days ago, specifically the note that I won't post chase plans anymore. I was pretty cryptic about the reason and that has generated a few emails. To state it more plainly, I think there are a few people who might try to cause trouble for me at work. That's as much detail as I want to use.

However, the interpretations that came from my admittedly ambiguous comment are worth a paragraph of their own. Some people supposdely decided that I must hold my forecasts in such high esteem that I'm guarding against moochers. That was pretty flattering. It's true I've spent hundreds of hours in the last decade trying to get better at forecasting supercells and tornadoes, but I never for a minute forget what a rank amateur I am now and always will be. Mooch at your own risk.

The other idea was that I had perhaps recieved some threat of violence. I guess there are some who'd like to take a swing at me, and conversely there's a few chasers whose teeth I'd love to introduce to the bottom of my shoe. But no, nobody has threatened to come to my chase target and beat me up. LOL.

Last, somebody pointed me to a blog entry where Tulsa's Steve Miller gives me the business for leading a "chase award" contest on Stormtrack. Rather than promote his own work, Steve enumerates why people would be absolutely off their rockers to vote for mine. I could not agree more. Vote for Steve's. He does a great job with his page. He also suggests the person leading the 'best website' category is similarly unworthy, though I can't figure out who's winning there since many chasers voted for more than one person. I didn't care enough to break out a piece of paper and make a tally sheet.

All of this is less troubling than it might have been years ago. I'm so damn busy now and I learned this summer that people you come to know mostly through the internet you don't really know at all, something any student of mine could have told me and which a fiction writer should know instinctively. This summer I understood that, in chasing, when you start thinking about ways to improve your own success rate and extend your learning opportunities, those who don't feel the same get pretty pissed off. They don't want to be made to feel ignorant or lazy while they remain ignorant and lazy. They like to be told they're doing a great job pondering the newest radar software and asking for shortcuts on how to find tornadoes. I spent a lot of personal time in the last several years working for the "good of the community" in chasing, and it was all a big mistake. In chasing, no good deed goes unpunished. There's no question in my mind that the best way to interact with the hobby is keep to yourself, chase your storms, enjoy the few chaser friends you actually know in person, and leave it at that.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The DVD Storms of 2005 is now available for sale. This is one of the best severe weather DVDs ever made, including much footage not available anywhere else (including mine), and is the only stormchasing product sending all profits to charitable organizaitons like the Red Cross. The production includes footage from the major hurricanes of 2005 and nearly all the best supercell and tornado chases in April, May, and June.

Here's the web page with more information and purchase details.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The semester swamped me with papers and paperwork and my blog paid the price. The transition from graduate student to instructor was rough: each of my three classes has twenty five or more students, all doing three or four papers as well as in class assignments and other materials. I thought I could manage time, but I still have much to learn, particularly when it comes to incorporating teaching responsibilities into a writing life routine. In addition to neglecting the blog, I haven't touched my novel since April, really. I still plan on finishing it, and intend to reduce my course load in the spring to make sure that happens. We'll see how it goes.

I was awaiting feedback from an editor with tremendous experience in literary fiction, and that arrived about three weeks ago. It was worth the wait. I've absorbed her observations and at the same time found a great book called 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley that offers some profound and practical ideas about the form and an experienced writer's approach to revision. It could not have come at a better time. Her ideas about analyzing a novel draft gave me tangible direction for the work ahead. Now I have to do it.

Other good news: the anthology with my story, The Nine Ideas For A Happier Whole, is available in paperback. The book is called The Habit of Art and I'm honored to be included with some of the best writers from the IU Workshop's 25 year history.

About stormchasing, my exploits this October have taken a backseat to teaching and other considerations. Eric and I had a great chase, but neither of us have found time to write reports or post imagery. I intend to complete all 2005 reports over the Christmas holidays, including my last few June chases, which were excellent as well. There just hasn't been time for it this semester. This isn't to say I've dropped off the chasing map. On the contrary, I worked pretty hard on the June 9th chapter of the upcoming charity DVD, Storms of 2005. This production includes segments on all the biggest storm chase days of 2005, with footage and still photos from many dozens of chasers across the United States. The work is fantastic and all profits go to charitable organizations and the Red Cross. Two prominent chasers, Greg Stumpf and Jim LaDue, are the masterminds of the venture, and their experience with a similar project last year was very successful as they raised many thousands of dollars. I'll announce the release of the DVD and the website where you can buy a copy in the next day or two. I'm excited. My chapter features some of the best tornado footage of the year, including Hill City video from Mike Hollingshead and Scott Blair. Chaser and weather enthusiasts won't want to miss this release.

On a more unfortunate note, I no longer feel comfortable posting my upcoming chase plans publicly. The reasons are complex and paranoid, but suffice to say that a few particularly vindictive and unpleasant individuals could use this information to create mischief in my life. It's incredible that chasing has come to this. The summer fiasco with Stormtrack was a abject lesson in the unique selfishness and sociopathy of some in the hobby. I don't exclude myself from this indictment.

This is more of a concern during the school year than in May and June, but has caused me to examine the whole enterprise of this blog. I don't know whether I'll keep it going or not. I'll always post chase reports, but the pre-chase discussions are less appealing in the new world of chasing.

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