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In the aftermath of 'The Devils Windstorm'

June 15, 2012

Crewswork on clearing trails from 'The Devils Windstorm.' Photo/Wendilyn Grasseschi

Last winter’s big windstorm—the one that took down tens of thousands of trees in the Reds Valley/Devils Postpile Area, now has a name.

It is now known by the National Weather Service as “The Devils Windstorm,” and for good reason.

“Can you imagine being in this storm?” said Rhett Milne, a NWS meteorologist who on Monday gave a lecture on the Nov. 30-Dec. 1 event at the Forest Service Auditorium in Mammoth. Milne is the “extreme weather events coordinator” for Southern Nevada and Eastern California.

He told an overflow crowd (about 120 people) that he knew early on the afternoon of Nov. 30 that there was going to be a big wind, and he acknowledged that the weather service posted all appropriate warnings and watches for such a thing.

But he said neither he nor anyone else was prepared to forecast the speed with which the downslope winds fell on Reds Valley, nor the sustained period of the storm—an all-nighter that unearthed huge trees and snapped others, arranging them all in a weird, northeast-to-southwest orientation.

“This was a thrill-seeker type of event,” he said after his one-hour presentation. “Can you imagine being in that forest and seeing those trees coming down?

“It must have been just unbelievable. It must have been loud and harrowing and I don’t know how many adjectives you could throw at it, but it would have been cool has hell.

“To witness something like that would have been unbelievable.”

Among the first to see it was Sue Burak of Crowley Lake, an accomplished scientist and athlete.

In a telephone interview, Burak said she made it down to Reds Valley on Jan. 3 and saw the astonishing spectacle.

She ventured there with Milne himself, a friend of hers from back in the day when she was doing graduate work in Reno, just across the street from the Weather Service offices.

“They all know me by name,” she said with a laugh.

In fact, Burak frequently has invited Milne to the Eastern Sierra to deliver talks and data to invited guests—other scientists and weather experts.

She has a somewhat inured attitude toward extreme scientific events, such is the nature of her profession, but she said, “Both of us were impressed.”

So, too, was Deanna Dulen, the ranger at Devils Postpile.

“In January, we’d heard about the wind event and as we launched into the New Year, we headed down to the Postpile and Rainbow Falls.

“The first mile, we thought we had only about 50 downed trees and thought, what’s the big deal? Then we got to a ridge and as I got closer to the Postpile, 50 trees quickly became 150 trees, and then I quit counting.

“There were countless numbers of trees and tangles of trees. It was kind of like it harkened back to fanciful days of childhood, climbing in and around trees, but then it got really exhausting.
“There was just a wall of trees.”

Milne, in his lecture, found it hard to express the ferocity of the wind.

“There were just incredible windspeeds over the top of Mammoth, and for a very long duration. These winds were hellacious and the gusts were just incredible—a super-super rare thing.”

The Devils Windstorm took many in the Town to realize what had happened.

John Walter, who lives in the Knolls section of town, said he did not notice anything unusual about the wind that night. Nor did the airport experience anything overly weird. The wind there was clocked at 35-45 miles an hour—nothing special.

What had happened, however, was the wind came from the northeast, crawled up the side of the escarpment, and then fell on the valley in increasing velocity, reaching its peak “chaos” as it hit the valley floor at 180 miles an hour or more.

“This wasn’t a huge surprise,” he said. “We had winds up to 100 miles an hour over the crest lots of times, usually from the south-southwest. Unless you went up on top of the mountain on this side (Eastern) of the hill, there was nothing going on; on the other side, a whole different story.

“It was a perfect downslope windstorm.”

Soon after the event, the area got a good-sized snowstorm, and the cleanup work that started in January stopped until the snow melted away. There was more snow in March.

Now, there is a stream of scientists coming from all over the place to investigate the Devils Windstorm, including scientists from Sequoia-King’s Canyon National Park, such as Kathleen Hilimire, a biologist specializing in forestry.

She also addressed the overflow crowd in the auditorium Monday night.

“Everyone wants to know if there were specific kinds of trees that blew down,” she said. “Basically, they were red firs and lodgepoles. When you first see it, it looks like we lost more red fir, but when you run the numbers on it, there’s not much of a difference.

“The wind was indiscriminate. Whatever was there, it knocked down.

“Eighty-six percent of the trees were uprooted; 14 percent percent were snapped. Enormous rootwads are everywhere. In certain areas, everything is snapped and that has to do with the winds itself and the kinds of winds.”

The area also is crowded with cleanup crews, hurrying to open some of the developed areas by the flanking Fourth of July weekends (the Fourth this year is on a Wednesday).

To do that work, Dulen said it would take “hard work by the Masters of the Chainsaw.”

They, among others, have seen the Devils work, and it is, in the appropriate words of Milne, “hellacious.”

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