Alta. wind challenges drivers

The wind warning sign along Highway 3 in southern Alberta, west of Lundbreck, read 181 km-h when it blew down.

The locals, accustomed to strong winds typical of the region, appreciated the irony.

The few semi-trailer drivers and people pulling holiday trailers, who took their chances along that highway and the north-south route of Highway 22, were less appreciative. Their vehicles have been blown off the road in windy conditions over the past three weeks.

Winds Dec. 29 brought down the sign but it also caused two grass fires in the region that fortunately were controlled without damage to homes.

“Touch wood, other than burning off some natural grasslands and some stubble, we didn’t lose any structures in any of the fires,” said Pincher Creek emergency services deputy chief Pat Neumann. “We had lots and lots of help from local area residents.

“Thank goodness, because it could have been far, far worse. It could have easily become another Granum fire.”

That blaze, in December 1997, burned 54,000 acres in similar winds.

Dan Kulak, meteorologist with Environment Canada, said the recent wind speeds, although measured above 100 km-h several times, have not been unusually high for the region.

“140 (km-h) and above is not an overly rare occurrence,” Kulak said Jan. 7.

The official weather station near Waterton, in Alberta’s deep southwest, has recorded wind speeds of more than 120 km-h 63 times in the last 23 years, he said. In 2018, that speed was reached or exceeded three times, twice in December 2018, at 137 and 138 on two different days.

At the Pincher Creek, Alta., station, no speeds above 120 were recorded in December. As for the fallen wind warning sign, Kulak said it is not an official measurement although such a speed is certainly possible.

“That spot may be particular and that wind speed sign may in fact be in the exact right spot it needs to be in, but we don’t have stats for that sign.”

In terms of force, Kulak said the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale indicates wind speeds up to 153 km-h are category one, 154 to 177 are category two and 178 to 208 are category three.

Given the 181 measurement on the fallen sign, “if that’s to be believed … you’re pushing into the category two hurricane scale or the category two on the Fujita scale,” he said. The Fujita scale is typically used to rate tornadoes.

“So these are significant winds but not entirely unprecedented in southwest Alberta,” said Kulak.

“We just don’t think of it as being a hurricane because it’s not a hurricane. It’s a chinook.”

Neumann has no argument with the force of the wind. He responded to a power pole fire Dec. 31 amid another day of wind warnings.

“It was blowing so hard out there that in that little truck that I drive, it felt like it was going to flip it over on the road. (The wind) had cleared all the gravel off the road. Same thing, it was gusting somewhere around 140 or 150 that night too. We couldn’t actually get water to the pole. We ended up having to cut the pole down in the end.”

Challenges like that are unfortunately not that unusual at this time of year, Neumann added.

“Everybody assumes that grass fire season is August, September … but the reality is that where we live, with the drying conditions and the winds and the lack of snow cover, you’ve got all of that cured grass. Once it becomes exposed … it can create the same kind of conditions that we see in August even though we don’t have the temperatures.

“We do have some of our worst grass fires at this time of year because people become complacent.”

As for vehicles flipping over in wind, Neumann said warning signs have reduced the number. He used to respond to many more incidents than he does now. As well, area residents know how to manage against wind, which reduces damage.

“People know how to button stuff down. We’re more prepared. If we had winds like this in Medicine Hat or Calgary, it would be a disaster. Out here, it’s just another day.”

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