Tornado belt: Idaho

Why tornadoes in northern Idaho are unlike any other

The first prospective tornado to hit the panhandle region of Idaho was when a very dark cloud passed over the hills while we were huckleberry picking (my parents and myself) there was some wind, but the heaviest damage from this storm came from strong winds that ripped up the town of Wallace, Idaho. This was back in the early 70s. People in that town thought that a tornado had struck the place because of the damage. But of course, because this is quite a mountainous region, nobody believed that a tornado could have occurred.  About 20 years later however, we would have our first proof that mountains don’t prevent severe storms.  Nor does Idaho’s drier climate prevent some type of tornado from forming.

I was still at the Coeur d’Alene Resort in August of 1995 working at Tito Macaroni’s.  While moving trash from the restaurant to the compactor at the rear of the Resort, I saw some particularly nasty and roiling clouds coming up over the mountains bordering Coeur d’Alene Lake.  They were quite black underneath.  I pointed this out to a co-worker and suggested that these clouds could only spell some real trouble.  He looked at them and agreed.  We finished our task and more than half an hour later I was heading home from work.  By then, I had seen quite dark gray clouds coming in layers across the sky as I walked the sky walk between The Shops and the Resort.  I was about to head on home for the afternoon when I was asked to help move some flowers up to Beverly’s kitchen to ultimately place in some of the boardrooms.  That was when the power abruptly went out.  I was startled enough to spill some of the water from the flower vases that I was carrying.  Of course, it wasn’t really going to be possible to get on the elevator or even try to move at all until they could get the generators into operation.  When they did, we got the vases of flowers moved up to the seventh floor and I prepared to head to the house.

All hell had broken loose.  Trees were brought down around the lake, limbs were torn off other trees and crashed onto peoples’ parked cars.  Leaves were among the debris that littered the ground and heavily shaken people were describing what they encountered.  It was raining hard with the wind blowing strong enough for the rain to literally blow horizontally against my back. The clouds themselves were very low and very black.  As the Coeur d’Alene Press was to later describe it, the boardwalk at the Resort had been heavily damaged by the wind, people had described a tornado touching down in the Rathdrum prairie and all of the damage it had done there.  Among other things, snapping trees a few feet up from the ground.  Given the havoc that this storm had wreaked, there was no longer any question that Northern Idaho in the panhandle region can actually get such storms.

What to watch for when spotting a tornado

1997:   If you see clouds layering as they cross the sky, if you see roundish blue spots that travel with the clouds.  This was on a Saturday before Memorial day when a squall line crossed three states:  Oregon, Washington, Idaho and dropped the sort of funnel clouds that literally had torn up a farm in Washington state and freaked people out from Kootenai to Bonner County.  Back at the time when I was still living on 15th street, I saw such a blue spot in the sky as it came in from the west, from the Post Falls area.  I was preparing to plant some herb seeds for the Farmer’s Market and after watching this blue spot (low pressure zone) for a couple of minutes I went back to my work.  Being interrupted by a shrill scream in the wind.  The trash can had been sucked out of its wooden cradle and lay in the lawn some distance from it.  The wind was blowing in a circular motion, literally pulling and tugging the grass (much like a vacuum cleaner) into a circular pattern into a central core.  The wind had also blown the [propped open] back and coming to rescue it, I saw that while the wind was whipping the grass and the bushes, it never even bothered the tomato plants that were in the nearby garden.  I was not certain that I had seen a tornado until the funnel cloud had actually come near (if not touching) the ground and was just outside the house.  It unfurled within a minute or so (like a scene out of twister) and crossed over to the neighbor’s yard.  It set the lights to flickering.  I went out the front door and saw circular clouds to the east that looked much like the rings of an onion.  They were also “sliced” as the cloud(s) approached the mountains to the east.  Tornadoes became the topic of the locals for many weeks to come.

Seeing in the month of July in the following year, a greenish cast in the southern sky.  The clouds were ruffly and hanging way too low (again like a scene out of twister).  Across the hills to the east of the house, how shall I describe this, lightning clustered—flash—flash—flash.  A particularly tight knot of flashing lightning that crossed the hills from the south to the north.  The wind at this time was blowing wildly, then this “sudden storm” with its clustered lightning and passed onward.  Years later, talking with a fellow who had seen a damage track of wind downed trees about in the area where I had seen this particular event.

If you see as I had on a Memorial Day around 1999,  an ovoid black cloud, that came out of the west, came quickly, the sky an odd yellowish color that surrounded it; if you had seen a sort of wall cloud at the near (approaching end) of this oval cloud.  If you had seen a thin streamer just below it of lighter air surrounded by what meteorologists call “rain wrapping.”  Watch the approaching funnel cloud begin to whip the trees on the property, watch this same funnel cloud suddenly move from its original trajectory.  Watch as it now enters the Hayden/Hayden Lake area.  As it nears the mountains, it broadens out and eventually after a few minutes, it disappears leaving a circular cloud behind.  Oh, and it had ripped up a yard of a dental hygienist.  Seen also by a c0-worker fishing in Hayden Lake.  He called the National Weather Service who not having seen what he and I had seen, thought it was a “dust devil.”  Right, coming out of an oval-shaped cloud and leaving a circular ringed cloud behind.  Some “dust devil.”

Year of 2003 around May, heavy dark clouds that came from the East and the south, joining; colliding really, and produced along with the thunderstorm multiples of whirling wind that would end up wreaking havoc as far as Cataldo and brought down a huge old pine out in the field.  Caused a young tree to whirl frantically and the wind crossing the garden to take a cover off a raised garden.  November around 1998, it had been unseasonably warm for the time of the year, not yet by Thanksgiving.  A cold front with high winds and heavy rain had come in.  Of course, walking home in the downpour, I had come off of Fourth Street onto Best Avenue and found myself in the middle of wind blowing from more than one direction.  A few more steps, and the wind was again blowing steadily from one direction.  The houses causing the wind to rotate?  My parents had thought so.  But about an hour later after I had bathed to warm up and was eating, a shrill whistle sounded across the back yard and wind had buffeted the back door.  Oh, and quite a damage track from the woods that had grown up in the back property, downed trees scattered about haphazardly, damaged trees, a fir tree never touched, clothesline brought down by a snapped tree.  Plastic hanging baskets snapped in two and scattered on the ground.  Across Davis Avenue, a neighbor’s fence entirely brought down with no other damage.  Around 7 to 8 pm that night.  If these had simply been straight winds, would there have been haphazard damage in a definitive track?  Areas not touched by any damage?  An entire fence blown down in the neighbor’s yard with no other visible signs of damage?

My widowed mother and I moved into Dalton Gardens by 2004, in the following year, I was to see a fast moving wall cloud going from north to south, having a greenish tint to it.  Pointing it out to my mother.  No, it had no visible tail; but, it whipped the trees hard as it passed over the house…

It takes specific conditions to produce a cloud to ground “tail” from a funnel cloud.  The right amount of moisture, heat plus humidity and a wind that (as in the plains states) drives the cloud down to the ground.  You may not see a visible “tail” in any of our local tornadoes.  So, look for a wall cloud, as was the case in June of 2007, where the tornado warning crossed the state of Idaho, produced what certainly looked like a mile-wide wall cloud, heavy green color in the surrounding clouds, the dust and debris that it picks up and throws haphazardly around.  This tornado made a mess of my late neighbor, Shirley Baker’s yard.  Twisted and snapped off a willow tree further up the road, destroyed boats on Priest Lake and produced better than 100 mph winds by the time it had crossed the Canadian border.

Damaged willow tree on Mt. Carrol Street June 2007 tornado

Straight winds don’t cause this.

Shear winds can produce tornado style conditions.  Basically, the second of two categories of tornadoes.  The latter called dynamic.  This area has certainly seen shear wind produced, dynamic style tornadoes.  They can occur at any time, under any condition, including in December of 2006 when a high wind came in off the coast of Washington state and as it advanced inland, developed a torque.  There were a great many photos sent into KREM 2 News regarding this singular winter storm between the fifteenth and sixteenth of that month.  Oh, and the wind sock out front that couldn’t make up its mind which way to blow.  Gusts that hit the front of the house, a sound of whirling.  Gusts, that came down the chimney, gusts that finally struck the back of the house.  The photos showed the damage that was done across Washington State and across the Kootenai County area itself.  Where a church roof on Fourth Street was peeled away.

And again in 2010, a far too rainy spring, a tornado report in Moses Lake, Washington; and the Coeur d’Alene Press reporting Hayden Lake residents facing damaged homes because of a singularly hard wind on the same night. The National Weather Service did not wish to believe that the Moses Lake tornado could have re-formed and struck a particularly isolated area in Hayden Lake nearly causing a home owner his life.  But then again, they didn’t see the mile-wide wedged shaped cloud that moved across the hills, or heard the rolling sound in the wind, or watched a neighbor trying to get his canvass shelter fastened down, or been the president of the Farmers’ Market driving home at the same time, driving through an obvious area of rotation, getting hit hard by the wind, driving out of it, and getting chased by the same storm to her home.

It isn’t possible to recount all tornado incidents, but as Tom Sherry was to tell me recently, this area (Washington, Idaho) gets one or two a year now.  Climate change???


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