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Eye in the storm - North Van woman chases tornadoes

For most folks, supercell thunderstorms, tornados and flash floods would ruin a vacation. Jade Vajna’s, however, would be ruined without them.

For most folks, supercell thunderstorms, tornados and flash floods would ruin a vacation. Jade Vajna’s, however, would be ruined without them.

For the last five years, the North Vancouver storm chaser has been trying to put herself into the path of the most violent weather events tearing up the American Midwest and Eastern Canada to document and study them.

“It’s hard to find things that are exciting nowadays. And we’re so disconnected from nature. I feel when you’re in the middle of a storm … you feel connected to nature and you feel alive and you’re just kind of present,” said Vajna, who works a day job in tech support. “I feel like I’m me.”

Vajna has a lifelong fascination with weather and rare natural phenomenon. But for the most part, it didn’t go beyond keeping her TV tuned to The Weather Network. When a violent storm came crashing into Vancouver in November 2013, Vajna spotted a group of people going to meet it, cameras in hand.

“There were all these waves crashing up over the seawall and it was just insane. There were people there filming it. I thought you know what? I need to go do this. I just had this epiphany,” she said.

She booked her first trip to Oklahoma’s tornado alley for the next spring. After a safety briefing with an experienced guide and signing a host of waivers, her group set out looking for funnel clouds.

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photo supplied, Jade Vajna

Like going to Las Vegas for the first time and hitting the jackpot, Vajna had beginner’s luck. One of the tornados they were tracking curved right into the path of their vehicle. The wind picked up irrigation pipes from a nearby field and sent them toppling over into their van.

“(The guide) wasn’t sure if he should stop and let it pass or keep going. All of that farm equipment is strung along the side of the highway. As it was coming towards us, it pushed it right into the window. I could feel the van shifting,” Vajna said.

Footage of the incident captured from inside the vehicle has been included in a number of TV shows. In it, Vajna can be seen huddling in the back seat with her head down but still holding her camera up.

“I thought ‘Are we going to flip over?’ But I might as well get the shot because that’s what’s important,’” she said. “This was amazing. This was so much fun. It kind of got me hooked to the whole experience. I was like, ‘this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”

She extended her stay from two weeks to four. By the end. She’d fallen in with the crew from The Weather Network, skipped her flight and spent another week riding along with them.

On her birthday spent in Oklahoma this year, she recorded five tornados (if you count lesser land spouts, which Vajna totally does).

“Best birthday ever,” she said.

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Vajna and a group of fellow storm chasers document lightening strikes in Texas. photo supplied Fred Wasmer

Twister initiation

Chasers, as they refer to each other, are something of a subculture unto themselves.

They convene on message boards to swap stories and photos. They hold conventions, similar to comic book or science fiction fans.

“I didn’t realize how big the community was until I got into it,” Vajna said.

Storm chasing got a big boost in interest in 1996 with the release of the natural disaster movie Twister, starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton. The movie follows a ragtag group of weather obsessives chasing storms and looking to unlock the secrets of tornados. Vajna never saw the movie, however, until her chaser buddies put it on for her as a rite of initiation.

“They made me watch it. They said, ‘We have to fix this now.’ I get why people like it. I understand. It captures the essence of chasing a bit,” she said. “Meteorologically, it’s not very correct.”

Today, there are several reality TV shows that document weather’s daredevils documenting storms. Some of the show hosts also lead tours like the ones Vajna joins.

The chaser subculture has a number of odd overlaps, Vajna said – nerds, thrill seekers, photographers and nature lovers. It’s also about 90 per cent male, Vajna estimates, and highly competitive.

Most chasers keep their phones loaded with an app called Radar Scope that allows them to not only track storms but also track each other. Vajna’s is the lone chaser dot that appears in Vancouver though. Our famously placid West Coast weather is known more for coddling those who shun weather extremes, not seek them.

Still, Vajna documents and blogs any severe weather that blows into town as well as other natural phenomena like last summer’s solar eclipse or forest fire smoke. While Vancouverites were choking on ash in 2017, Vajna opted to drive north to Whistler “to get in the thick of it.”

 

Shots and chasers

For gear, Vajna carries a Sony NX70 camera to roll tape. The camera itself has something of a pedigree. She received it as a gift from George Kourounis, the host of Angry Planet and Storm Hunters on The Weather Network.

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Jade Vajna takes a read of the wind speed on her Kestrel weather metre. photo Paul McGrath, North Shore News

“It’s melted on the front because he goes to volcanoes and stuff. This thing has been through several hurricanes and tornados,” she said.

And when she’s on the chase, Vajna wears a Kestrel 2500 Weather Meter around her neck, allowing her to measure, in real time, wind speed and gusts, barometric pressure, temperature, wind chill and altitude.

The Weather Network has aired her footage a half-dozen times.

“It’s great to share weather with people and get people excited about it,” she said.

 

Force of nature

Almost needless to say, storm chasing is an inherently high-risk hobby and Vajna has had a few close calls.

jade
photo supplied, Jade Vajna

The tornado that sent farming equipment careening into the van she was riding in went on to become an EF3 on the Enhanced Fujita scale used to measure tornado strength. Those produce wind speeds of 218 to 266 kilometres per hour, capable of destroying homes, damaging large buildings, overturning trains and ripping the bark off trees.

“Scary things happen and you have that pucker moment. That’s what makes it kind of worth it and fun. It is gambling. You have no idea what you’re going to get,” she said. “Nothing is guaranteed.”

She once found herself inside “the bear’s cage” – the name given to the area inside the circulation of a supercell thunderstorm where the wind is blowing in different directions and a wall of rain makes it difficult to see anything including tornados, which can touch down at any moment.

She also has a picture of herself with her hair standing on end.

jade

She was far enough away from the storm that she felt safe capturing it in a selfie, but the hair-raising is something of an early warning – like spidey senses – for lightning. The positive electrical charge from the earth was flowing through her body like a conduit, while the negatively charged atmosphere above was looking for a place to discharge.

“That’s why people get killed. It’s called a bolt from the blue. It can be sunny and you can be struck by lightning,” she said. “They say if your arm hair starts standing up, it means you have to take shelter immediately because you’re basically about to get struck.”

Her biggest fear is getting caught in a flash flood and drowning in her vehicle.

Ultimately, it’s Vajna’s goal to get into the eye of a hurricane and experience the calm while havoc swirls around. But hurricanes are “a different level.”

“There are no tours that do that,” she said. “It’s like you’re camping during a zombie apocalypse. There can be no power. There can be no phones. You have to be very self-sufficient.”

There is a certain irony in Vajna taking up storm chasing as a hobby. As a child growing up in Ontario, Vajna had a particular fear of violent weather and tornados. The fear, though, gave way to curiosity.

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photo supplied, Jade Vajna

“I remember thunderstorms. I remember being afraid of them. But I was also fascinated by them. I had this weird complicated relationship. I had nightmares about tornados and I would be scared of them but I also wanted to see one,” she said. “Now I have dreams about tornados but I’m trying to go after them and they’re not coming after me. It’s a whole different thing.”

Chasing isn’t for everyone. It’s an expensive way to get your thrills. People have died attempting to document and study storms. But there is something universal in our awe of nature, Vajna said, whether it’s drizzling or blowing the paint right off of your barn.

“Everyone has weather in common. There’s always something you can talk about. Everyone has a weather story of some sort,” she said.

Vajna’s weather stories just might be a little more hair-raising than most.

 

Vajna publishes her weather stories, photos and videos of storms, extreme weather and other natural phenomena at

westcoaststormchaser.blogspot.com.

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photo supplied George Kourounis

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