Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: The spin on Sunday’s tornado in Denair

So Sunday afternoon, the tail end of a storm turned violent and tornadoes hit in and around Denair. Nearly two dozen homes and a church incurred some damage as the swirling winds knocked down trees and disrupted electrical service.

And the bigger-picture reason for this bit of bullying by Mother Nature is ... what? The predicted and drought-easing El Niño? Probably not, or at least, not yet. While there’s an ocean of evidence that one is coming, it won’t really crank up until December at the earliest, Modesto Junior College science professor Noah Hughes said. (And when a guy named Noah discusses major water events, listen up!)

Really active storms like the one that rolled through this weekend are common for this time of year, he said.

So, what, then? Climate change?

“I would not say that,” said Jim Mathews, a meteorologist and forecaster with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

So what, then?

The fact is, we’ve always had tornadoes, but they’re usually more like hissy fits than what struck Denair over the weekend. And as scary as it might have been for residents who endured it, it would pale in comparison to the catastrophic events that devastate entire towns throughout “Tornado Alley,” which stretches from South Dakota all the way south to Texas. That means nothing to the people in Denair. They aren’t the nation’s midsection. They are in California, where we’re supposed to limit our disasters to earthquakes, forest fires and a man-assisted floods, not tornadoes and hurricanes and their ilk.

Hughes said Californians report eight to 10 tornadoes each year. Few involve much property damage. He said his colleague at MJC, Mike Whittier, theorizes there is a mini-alley of sorts in the Valley,where gaps in the Coast Range funnel winds eastward up against the foothills, and under certain extreme conditions can create tornadoes. Denair is in a susceptible area, Hughes said. Ballico, where a small twister hit in 2005, is just seven miles south of Denair.

Others are east of Stockton and near Chico.

Mathews concurred. While the most active tornado areas in the state are in Southern California, the Bay Area and the Chico area, other parts of the state routinely have funnel clouds that reach the ground to become tornadoes, he said. Our part of the Valley is one of those areas.

▪ In 2005, a wild weather year that followed a very dry rainfall year, a tornado in April struck near Gustine the same day as the one that touched down near Ballico, in northern Merced County.

▪ In February 1998, a “tornado-like” system ripped up and knocked over a dozen trees, damaging a home and a car in north Modesto.

▪ In December 1996, a tornado ripped the metal siding off a barn and also damaged a two-car garage southeast of Oakdale.

▪ And Joanne Powers Woodbridge emailed to tell us about the tornado that split her family’s dairy barn in half on Beckwith Road in the Wood Colony area. It was pictured in the April 28, 1953, edition of The Bee.

“It was a traditional dairy barn with (feeding areas) on both sides and hay in the middle,” she said.

“A freak cyclone picked up this dairy barn on the O.B. Powers Ranch, Beckwith Road, off of its foundation and collapsed it ...,” the photo caption read.

So twisters are by no means uncommon here. Most simply come down in rural fields and do little or no damage. Are they happening more frequently? No, Mathews and others who study weather and the climate said. Two things come into play:

First, as more land is developed and more buildings go up, twisters have more targets, Hughes said. When people and property are threatened, the events get more attention, and that segues into the second.

Seemingly everyone has a phone with quality still photo and video capabilities. With minutes of Sunday’s tornado in Denair, people began sending images and videos over Twitter, Facebook and directly to and the Sacramento-area TV stations.

The same thing happened a couple of weekends ago when the Navy launched a missile from a ship near Catalina Island. Immediately, the social media lit up with photos of the rocket soaring across the night sky. A UFO? Invasion of the Body Snatchers? War of the Worlds? The North Korean guy with the Don King hairdo gone berserk? What gives?

It was the Navy’s test missile, followed by another a day or so later, according to reports.

Once again, technology is affecting the way we see, experience and share events in most cases. Sunday’s tornado in Denair added its own spin.

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