NorWesCo tracked the storm, which spanned 41 miles.
By JODI MELAIN Sentinel Reporter
SIREN-The National Weather Service gets the credit for warning people via radio waves June 18 that a tornado was coming. But a local weather service gets the credit for actually spotting the funnel clouds. Those sightings might have saved lives.
Members of the local amateur radio group NorWesCo watched the sky for 16 hours before the tornado hit Siren. Wes Jones was on duty. “We had a person at the state line when it crossed the state line, and we watched it all the way,” said Jones. Using their hand-held radios, these weather spotters radioed the Weather Service in Duluth when they saw tornadoes. Within a minute, radio and TV stations had the information.
At 4:30 that evening, the NorWesCo crew, all volunteers, were activated by a system called Local “Sky Warn.” weather The Weather spotter Service has trained them to spot tornados.
When the Weather Service sees bad weather coming, it contacts NorWesCo. The radio group begins to watch the sky. Throughout the day, NorWesCo kept in contact with the Weather Service. When the storm hit the county line, the Weather Service warned NorWesCo.
They said, ‘This looks bad, but we don’t know,”‘ said Jones. The Weather Service can only watch the top of the storm. They miss the funnel clouds.They warned NorWesCo that they seen a “hook echo” on the radar.
Sure enough, beginning near Grantsburg, tornadoes hit.
A network of NorWesCo operators across Burnett County radioed-in sightings. “We knew it hit Siren,” Jones said. “We didn’t know how hard.” At that point, NorWesCo switched from Sky Warn mode to emergency operation mode. The group opened the county emergency center (the EOC) in Siren. It’s a room Bobbi Sichta, the county’s emergency management director, created.
A village had been wrecked.
“So there’s no transition. It’s just bing-bing,” Jones said. The EOC is a room where emergency workers of every kind gather to handle a disaster. NorWesCo’s job became shadowing emergency workers. They act as the workers’ communicators. Carrying hand-held radios,
NorWesCo operators follow DNR workers, for example, who have been organizing the volunteer effort. For the DNR, NorWesCo calls for supplies and more people. The weather portion of this tornado is done.
Because NorWesCo actually saw funnel clouds, the group might have saved lives. Only three died and 16 were injured in the P3 tornado, which could have had speeds of up to 206 mph. The storm stretched 41 miles long, and damage occurred a mile wide.
“They’re important in that they can keep an eye on the storm for us,” said Carol Christenson, a warning coordinator meterologist with the Duluth Weather Service. Christenson trained the NorWesCo members. While her Service uses Doppler Radar and can issue tornado warnings based on it, NorWesCo gives teeth to warnings.
“People are more apt to take protective action … if there’s been a confirmed sighting of A tornado,” Christenson said. “And we can’t do that witlil Doppler Radar.”
Story in Burnett County Sentinel 06-27-2001