Line of defense

By Linda Mowery-Denning
Marquette Tribune – April 23, 2014
Submitted by Newz Group Clipping Service – April 28, 2014

mcpherson co fire 4282014

In more than 10 years as a storm spotter, Marquette Fire Chief Kerry Linder had never seen a tornado. Then came the early evening of April 14, 2012.

It was still daylight when Linder and other volunteer spotters saw the large wedge-shaped twister several miles west of Langley, a small community in the southeast corner of Ellsworth County. They immediately notified the McPherson County dispatcher, who sounded the tornado siren in nearby Marquette.

Fortunately for residents there, the tornado went north instead of east, saving the town from damage. Others weren’t so lucky.

The tornado plowed through several farmsteads in Ellsworth and Rice counties, took down power poles and stripped trees of their tops.

Linder said a highway sign near the intersection of Kansas Highways 4 and 141 eventually was found on the Salina Municipal Golf Course, about 30 miles away. The tornado passed over Salina, sparing the city.

Several hours later, a weaker tornado skipped through Ellsworth County, badly damaging a rural home near Kanopolis.

No injuries were reported with either storm.

Officials with the National Weather Service said a dozen tornadoes were reported across Kansas that day more than two years ago. A typical April brings about 12 to tornadoes to the state.

When dangerous weather threatens, it’s volunteers such as Linder and other firefighters who serve on the front lines of defense.

Tim Hays, who lives with his family near Black Wolf, was already a veteran storm spotter when he joined the Ellsworth Volunteer Fire Department a decade ago.

Earlier, as a member of a rural fire department in Saline County, firefighters watched for bad storms and also were responsible for driving up and down country roads to warn residents of the potential danger. At the time, Hays had a loud speaker in his truck.

Tornado sirens tend to target city residents–and even then there are limitations.

“People complain they can’t hear the tornado siren inside their homes,” Marquette’s Linder said. “Really, they’re made more for the outside. If you’re in your home, you should be listening to the radio.”

Hays, who is building a new room in his basement for use as a storm shelter, said everyone needs to pay attention. It doesn’t matter whether you live in town or in the country. With more sophisticated radar and better notification, it’s easier to be aware of potential danger.

The April 14, 2012, tornadoes, for instance, were predicted a few days before by weather service forecasters, giving residents of central Kansas fair warning something could happen.

“We have to be thinking about what we’re going to do with ourselves,” Hays said.

He said storm spotters travel in pairs, seeking high ground and a possible escape route in case a tornado comes too close. No Ellsworth or Marquette firefighter has ever been injured on storm duty.

“There are a lot of high places where you can sit and watch and see from a distance,” Hays said. One of those places is on the Lorraine Road.

Luke Seitz, another member of the Ellsworth Fire Department, has been a storm spotter for 19 years. He has seen many funnel clouds, but never a tornado.

The difference?

A funnel cloud doesn’t become a tornado until it touches the ground, Seitz said.

Caution is always part of the job.

“You don’t want to cry wolf too many times,” Seitz said.

Nighttime tornadoes are especially scary. The only way to see a twister is often through a bolt of lightning.

“The storm could be on you and you don’t know it,” Seitz said. “You need to know the way the storm is coming in order to position yourself.”

Once a storm passes, the next step for spotters is to inspect the landscape for damage.

Like all storm spotters, Seitz encourages residents to be prepared. He suggests keeping a storm kit in the basement with extra water, clothing, shoes and a whistle in case of entrapment.

“You can only yell for so long, but you can blow on a whistle all day until somebody hears it,” he said.

Not all firefighters head to the fire station or high ground when bad weather approaches. However, those who do say there is satisfaction in knowing they have helped protect their families and neighbors.

Linder said Marquette volunteers are paid $15 every time they storm spot, just as they are on fire runs.

“I’d do it for nothing anyway,” he said. “You never really think of yourself too much because you’re helping the community.”

For others, the reasons strike closer to home. Hays knows all about the destruction a tornado can cause because his great-grandmother lost her home during the Hoisington tornado of 2001. A neighbor, who was asleep at the time, lost all the walls of her house except the ones in her bedroom.

Seitz said tracking tornadoes can be both scary and interesting. He was hooked the first time he put on his bunker gear and headed out to storm spot.

“Weather intrigues me–and you do it for the safety of the community,” he said.

Gwen Romine, KSFFA Webmaster