Ricky Forbes grabbed their attention with his very first question.
“Anybody ever been caught in a tornado?” he asked a gymnasium full of Kelvington High School students on Oct. 29. Saskatchewan’s very own tornado-hunter, Forbes was raised in Martensville and has been chasing tornados for three years alongside photographer Greg Johnson and videographer Chris Chittick.
Using a dynamic PowerPoint presentation, Forbes described the six months of the year he spends in Tornado Alley, a geographic region that runs from mid Texas all the way up to central Saskatchewan. More than 1200 tornadoes are recorded each year, more than anywhere else in the world.
He’s on the road from the beginning of April until the end of September, spending 10 and 12 hours a day in a truck affectionately known as Flash, covering 100,000 kilometres.
Flash, a Ford truck tricked out to the tune of $150,000, is outfitted with approximately $250,000 worth of cameras and equipment.
“We have approximately 30 cameras,” Forbes told the students. The trio’s summer income rests on capturing the most amazing formations of cell clouds, tornadoes and spectacular lightning storms.
“Tornadoes are just rotating air, an extension of a turbine in the sky,” he explained, “with nothing going on inside them.”
Saskatchewan is the perfect location for tornadoes to develop; flat country with weather influenced by warm dry air from the Gulf of Mexico, cool dry air from Canada and warm moist air from the North American west coast.
“In the last five years Saskatchewan has seen 150 tornadoes,” he said. “In one day this past year in the Davidson-Kenaston region of the province, there were 15 tornadoes.”
Tracking tornadoes based on information from Environment Canada, storm-chasers use wind velocity radar to pinpoint a storm.
“You have to blast through the rain and the hail to get to a tornado,” Forbes informed the students and staff, “and you bust through and there’s no tornado and the radar says there is and you look up and you can see it forming.”
More than once he and his team have been caught too close for comfort; in the past three years, they have replaced the windshield on the truck 20 times. This past summer he put the truck in the ditch to avoid a tornado that made an unusual turn and ended up chasing him. Showing footage of the episode, he rued the fact that the ditching caused the cameras to fail and he couldn’t show his audience the grain truck that flew through the air toward them and landed a short distance away.
Forbes has chased tornadoes all the way to Kelvington and said that in 2012, the Kelvington-Wadena area was the tornado capital for one day. When asked how one might get involved in the business, he said that a degree in meteorology is the best way to get a foot in the door.
“Ninety-nine per cent of chasers go to university first. You have to know weather, weather patterns and cloud formations. You have to know the science behind the storms, how long they stick around, where they are going.”
Three years ago, Forbes added, you could make pretty good money selling the photos you took chasing storms, but these days everyone ha a cellphone and can take a picture, upload it in seconds and give it away to the media for free.
For the past three years a film crew followed the tornado-chasers and made a film that aired on CMT Canada as a one-hour special. Getting a show on the air may may be the next best route to making money by chasing tornados.
“It’s the most amazing thing in the world to come up alongside a tornado and follow it for an hour or two,” Forbes enthused, giving dozens of students a dream about becoming tornado-hunters themselves.
In the off season Forbes lives in Canmore, Alta., biding his time as a snowboard instructor while he waits for the next storm season to begin.
By Susan Lowndes