Squall Line, Fire and Hawks of Hennessey

Hennessey and Okeene OK areas
18 Apr 9

SHORT: Briefly observed outflow dominant squall line W of Hennessey after pre-linear discrete storm failed. Watched controlled burn lose control twice, surrounded by a hundred Swainson’s hawks.

LONG: I had a day shift, so my ability to observe storms realistically was limited to the main body of OK, given the setup. Here was the setup: A “cold core” tornado scenario, out of reach in the DDC area, with a cold/occluded front arching SE across northwest OK then southward over west OK, adequate but not ideal moisture with prefrontal surface dew points 50s F (mixing into upper 40s in spots), and low level winds and shear generally weakening with southeastward extent.

My relief arrived an hour early (traded an hour for the next day). Elke joined me at my unnamed workplace to head out, by which time the tornado show already was essentially over in KS, and a big, honking supercell had erupted ahead of the main line in Woods County OK. That storm also was unreachable before it would be hit by the backbuilding frontal squall line.

Our target, therefore, was any storm that could erupt farther S, ahead of the squall line, and N of I-40 where the better shear would remain. To avoid I-35 road work in Norman, we headed out the Highway-9 and Turnpike extension through Piedmont, then N out of El Reno toward Kingfisher. A persistent cell indeed had developed ahead of the line and SW of Enid, neither strengthening nor dying for the time it took us to drive almost to Hennessey on US-81. Then our plume of hope suddenly expired, leaving behind a wisp of its former glaciation. Nothing but high-based, mushy looking convective rubbish populated the skies ahead of the backbuilding southern end of the line, now located to our SW.

That opportunity unceremoniously thwarted by a thoughtless atmosphere, we parked on a paved back road about 4 SW of Hennessey and waited…just waited. We watched some distant, multicellular convection that was over the Norman area and the ledge of anvil material growing in the western sky with the approach of the squall line. Elke practiced some techniques she has been learning for digital panoramic photography with a classic Okie scene from NE-SE. And we waited.

A couple of miles to our N, and a few miles W of Hennessey, a growing smoke plume caught our attention. We decided to head W on OK-51 and attempt to get a pretty shelf cloud photo from the squall line, stopping to visit the fire along the way. As we drove up, it was obvious that

    1. This was intended to be a “controlled” burn, set to toast a field of stubble, similar to how other, adjacent plots of land had been charred very recently, and

    2. Good intentions sometimes backfire…quite literally in this case.

Before cruising abeam of the burning biomass, I stopped for a few photos, admiring the sharp texturing of the smoke plume and the remarkable contrast between the sunlit, cream-and-tan toned smoke and the slate colored background of the squall line’s anvil shadow ( looking NW). Then, as we we drove past the conflagration, the recently charred sections appeared neatly cordoned off by the road and linear, bulldozed paths of dirt. The fire didn’t cross those, but instead had jumped some western dozer-clearing into a grove of trees on the far (W) side, perilously close to the presumptive home of the landowner. It was a clear case of a plan gone awry. Deeply buoyant pillars of smoke blossomed into the southeast winds, the controlled burn having evolved into anything but — unless, that is, the farmer intended to torch some of his trees and send bursts of flame 40 feet into the air within less than 100 feet of a house. Smoldering spots in the charred field spewed miniature smoke plumes that looked like Yellowstone’s fumaroles.

Several Swainson’s hawks flew overhead and just outside the smoke updraft, hungry migrants from the Argentine pampas ready to pick off any small critters scurrying away from the inferno. If you’re a field mouse, which form of death do you prefer: roasting in flames, asphyxiating in smoke, or being snatched, throttled mercilessly and torn to bird-bite sized pieces by a hawk? Fortunately, you aren’t a mouse and don’t have to face such macabre choices.

Westward on 51, we crossed the Cimarron River to a point about 7 miles E of Okeene and shot (as planned) a pretty picture or two of the outflow clouds, then headed back E. A big flock of white pelicans overhead looked ready to be sucked into the storm above the outflow plume; we hoped they found safer shelter instead. The area around the fire still attracted us, especially given Elke’s interest in those raptors (her mom professionally rehabilitates them). When we drove back by the burn scene, about an hour after leaving, we found two fascinating things:

    1. Approximately 100 Swainson’s hawks, many scattered about the charred field (awaiting fried mice?), others still in flight.

    2. Good intentions sometimes backfire…twice!

Approaching from the NW, the fire seemed to be merely smoldering, occasional wisps and diffuse streamers of smoke wafting hither and yon. Back on the E side of the section, newly scorched fields teemed with Swainson’s hawks standing patiently amidst the blackened stubble rubble, as if awaiting meals of char-broiled mice. Occasionally they screamed back and forth to their more numerous companions still soaring aloft. Here’s a shot of just a few of them. [Pardon the lack of coherent foreground/background focusing. With the late afternoon sky darkened by the thunderstorms approaching, the light level was very low, and I had the damnedest time shooting steadily in gusty winds and smoke with a long lens at 1/10 sec. I should have boosted the ASA a good bit, at least.]

Then hell itself broke loose. The outflow hit, in force, whipping the flames up again and sending them back to the ESE. After racing into another grove of trees, including several oily cedars, the inferno roared bright and hot, casting aglow the thick column of dark smoke lofted from things that shouldn’t have been burning. Wanting neither the automotive air filter nor our camera equipment to be drowned in smoke, we bailed S, confident at least that the imminent rain should douse the blaze, given the dense core evident on radar in the squall line.

After a decent Mexican dinner in Kingfisher, we returned home the way we came and were treated to a lightning show from the tail end of the MCS, then S of Norman. The spark action faded very soon after I got to a favorite vantage looking across lake Thunderbird, but I did manage to get one decent stroke with some cloud structure.

Elke wrote up a cool, insightful account of her own, which has been posted on our storm observing BLOG. Since my story dealt more with fire and birds than (lame) storms, I’m uploading it to my general BLOG instead of doubling up on the other one.


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