West Texas Fire and Ice

Late in the afternoon on June 12, we were feeling very fortunate to have just witnessed the final two tornadoes of the prolific tri-county event in west Texas. After breaking off the dying supercell north of Clairemont, the southern storm, between Clairemont and Rotan, had given us an unusual view of its lone tornado through a surprisingly translucent northern core of precipitation. We managed to navigate southeast, skirting the east edge of that core to get to the inflow side, seeing but avoiding much of the large hail. The sight of an occasional bright white ice ball bouncing high off the nearby ground was stark contrast to several recently lightning-ignited flames burning amidst the mesquite scrub, in heavy rain, no less!

The barrage of bolts was intense as we emerged from the core. In fact, other observers later reported that both of the southern storms had been extremely electrified, slinging cloud-to-ground (CG) strokes hither and yon with a fury seldom seen, and that it was amazing no storm chasers had been struck. We can verify that electrical onslaught, having caught its last barrage NW of Rotan.

As we left the last few raindrops and entered the inflow, a bright flash erupted to my immediate left. I looked that way to catch the fading but still brilliant channel of a forked CG, about 100 yards into the scrub brush. Suddenly a bright orange fireball, perhaps ten to fifteen feet across, erupted and wafted skyward where the bolt had contacted ground. The flaming orb vanished as fast as it formed, leaving behind a very faint mushroom of smoke, which itself dispersed into the wind within a second or two. All this took three seconds, tops; yet that fireball burned itself into the memory as vividly as any photograph.

If I had the artistic talent, I would paint the scene, because to photograph it would have been, at once, well-nigh impossible and outrageously dangerous. I don’t know what that CG struck to loft such a brief but intense flame, though given its rapid dispersion, I suspect some sort of volatile gas container: a small propane tank or perhaps a leaky natural gas unit. Whatever, it wasn’t tall enough to see above the scattered, 3-5 foot high shrubbery.

In 20 years of storm intercepts, that was only the second lightning-sparked explosion I’ve witnessed. It immediately brought to mind the first, way back in 1986. Rich Thompson and I, then OU students with almost no chasing or photography experience, had gone out to “lightning hill”, a high point along Highway 9 west of Norman, to attempt some lightning photography over the lights of southern Oklahoma City.

The high-based storm had flung out some brilliant, Arizona-style CGs while we were driving out of Norman, but unfortunately wouldn’t cooperate thereafter. Perched atop our vantage, we watched several strokes, mainly diffuse and buried in rain, a few of which I captured on film. They turned out but were nothing special; in fact, I’m not sure I still have those prints. [I had just begun using a 35 mm camera and wouldn’t graduate to slide film for another year.]

Had I caught one particular flash, though, I might have had an award-winning shot in my hands and in some magazine. In between bulb-setting shots (of course!) came a situation which, to this day, I have not seen any lightning photographer succeed in capturing. A sharp, staccato bolt hit in front of the core, about twelve miles to our NNE. With no delay, a stunning, turquoise colored fireball formed at the bottom of the channel, so intense that its glow reflected off the cloud base high above, in the form of a large disc of blue light.

A major electrical mechanism of some sort had been blown to smithereens, for this was far bigger, brighter and bluer than any of the many “power flashes” I’ve seen since, when a tornado or other high wind snaps power lines.

Had my camera’s shutter been open, the event would have been perfectly centered and symmetrically composed…an image for the ages that I still would rank among the top two or three in my entire photography gallery.

I fell to my knees in a maelstrom of mixed but intense emotion: sheer agony at having missed that once-in-a-lifetime shot, yet unbridled awe at witnessing the spectacle to begin with. I might still have been kneeling, muttering profanities, by the time I heard Rich yelling from about twenty yards away: “Holy ____, Rog, did you get that?!?!” I don’t recall how I answered, but it certainly wasn’t in a perky affirmative.

Isn’t it interesting, how some of our most memorable sights are those not documented on film or video?


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