On April 9, 2015 I witnessed one of the most intense tornadoes to hit Illinois in recent history. I wrote a summary of my experiences in the two weeks following the Fairdale, IL EF-4 Tornado which was my first major tornado encounter. My feelings at the time were very raw and difficult to describe so I never shared my story until now.
The Fairdale Tornado - By Justin Poublon
"I left Oshkosh, WI shortly before 2:30 PM on Thursday, April 9th 2015 for the first storm chase of the season.
A heavy rain was falling when I left the office downtown. It had been foggy much of the day and the temperature vehicle’s counsel read 39F. A few degrees colder and it would be snowing I thought. I decided to try out the live video stream on the chase that day so before I left I put the dashcam up.
The night before I thought I’d better make a few preparations. I put the laptop stand in position without realizing I had assembled it wrong and one side of the clamping mechanism was upside down. I attached the GPS puck on the far right corner of the dashboard like I always do. I cleaned out the snow pants, gloves, and wool socks left from the last Green Bay Packers game. I gathered all my tripods, window suction mounts, and cameras and placed them in the backseat like I always. I put the SKYWARN 3x5” magnet on the car like I always do. It was business as usual. In every way it was a normal day with exception for the fact I would be spending the next 10 hours in my car chasing storms, which I always do.
Getting in Position
My plan always was to drive to Rockford, target the surface warm front and latch on to the most impressive storm as it moved into Wisconsin. Several short range forecast models had sped up the timing and were bringing the action through Rockford as early as 6PM. They also kept pushing the warm front too far north during the afternoon. Morning thunderstorm activity had stopped the northward progression of the surface warm front in northern Illinois. I had anticipated the warm front would be slower to move north but not as much as it ended up being.
With a two and half hour drive I knew my timing would be tight. I traveled HWY 151 south to Madison, then took 39 south into northern Illinois. The entire time I watched a massive, high precipitation supercell plow through eastern Iowa on radar. It was drawing everyone's attention and it did look impressive for a while, but it wasn’t all that appealing to me. I considered an alternate route through Dubuque but all I could keep thinking was “stick to the plan”. Short range models had been wrong about the timing and that would only work in my favor. I felt great about the way things were coming together, my position, and felt if I just stuck with the plan things would work out.
I had the intention of intercepting a tornadic supercell and I knew that probably wouldn’t happen north of the surface warm front. I knew there would probably be one main cell or complex and the target would be fairly simple with the strong low pressure system tying it all together. What I didn’t know was whether the hp ball of pain moving out of Iowa was "the storm" or if there was something more to come?
So I stopped in Janesville for a break. I used the atm at the Kwik Trip since I had forgot to bring cash for tolls. I got dinner at Taco Bell; four soft shell tacos like always. In the Taco bell parking lot I took my time hashing out the route that would take me into northern Illinois. The initial plan was to take I39 around Rockford to HWY 20 and head west but that didn’t seem necessary. I figured I could save a few dollars and miles but cutting west along country roads and see developing thunderstorms at the same time. So when I reached Beloit I turned west onto SR 75 that would take me out to Freeport but I would turn off before reaching Freeport and drive south through Pecatonica.
This was when I saw my first action of the day. An elevated thunderstorm 20 miles to my east intensified, I snapped some pictures, and then a Severe Thunderstorm Warning was issued for it. I didn’t put any thought towards chasing that one nor the other cell that would develop to my west minutes later. Both of these storms were elevated and neither rooted in the boundary layer(i thought), neither of which were characteristics I was looking for. I watched them closely however. The cell that produced large hail near Cedarville soon became severe thunderstorm warned as it moved into Wisconsin. I looked at it and saw a very long, wide,
(I thought). I turned south and passed through Pecatonica.
I reached HWY 20 and took a moment to stop and think about things. The supercell in Iowa was starting to look messy but there wasn't much going on east of it yet. It was looking like this would be the storm to take over as the night progressed, so I took another step west and half way to Freeport I turned south again. This would put me in a better position to intercept but I wanted to keep looking south and east for a better option.
I knew that these storms were forming and going severe there for a specific reason. I hypothesized that the east/west surface warm front had become disjointed from the rest of the low level warm front. While forecast models had been correct about most of the warm front location, they were wrong about the boundary layer. Updrafts were feeding off an elevated layer above a wedge of colder surface air in the 50’s, then once updrafts reached the upper portion of the low level front they quickly went severe and quickly flared out. However I also think the updrafts were favoring a north/south feature across north-central Illinois. Perhaps an old outflow boundary, capping weakness, enhanced region of vorticity, or a density wave? I wanted to know what would happen if a surface based storm were to flare up along it?
By this point I had confidence that something was cooking and I was just making minor adjustments to get myself in the best position. These adjustments were a simple matter of navigation but stick out as critical decisions in hindsight. When I reached SR 72 near Forreston I had to make another critical decision. Do I abandon the storm to my east or stick with it just a little longer? The radar showed a tiny unwared cell with a hail marker to the south. I liked the way it looked. It was organized with a healthy updraft and located south of the storms that had flared up earlier. At the very least I was intrigued. Maybe I could score a storm to the east while everyone was focused to the west?
I stepped east towards Leaf River, turning south on county road 35. I stopped half way to Mount Morris so I could take a closer look at the cell that was now to my east. I looked through a sheet of rain under the base to see rapid rising cloud motion. I was excited! I wondered if this was this “it”? I was out of position, but once I relocated I noticed that the cloud motion was actually coming from a couple large smoke stacks. Just as quickly as the excitement came, it vanished again. Business as usual.
I saw that the SRV product was showing some rotation within that storm and I was pretty sure this cell would never produce before the tornado warning was issued for it. (Tornado did occur near Freeport/Rockford). I arrived in Mount Morris just as the sirens sounded off but there was very little going on underneath the storm. It was proof of concept because until then no storm in the region had developed strong enough rotation to be warned. To my west, the Iowa storm had another tornado warning and was approaching my location quickly. 17 miles to my south the other storm I had been watching flared up and was now severe warned. I was literally surrounded by storms and the ball was in my court.
I turned east again towards Oregon and it was about 6:20PM when I took my first good look at the Aston, IL cell on radar. At first I blew it off as a meaningless radar tag but my jaw dropped on second look. It couldn’t have been more than 30mins old and already had one of the best SRV rotation couplets I’d ever chased! I totally forgot about the tornado warnings to my east/west and focused solely on this new severe storm. Again I had to make a critical decision once I passed through Oregon. There was a road just east of Oregon(CR5) that would’ve taken me where I needed to go but I chose against it. I immediately regretted it because it felt like forever before I turned onto my southern route through Chana (CR4). In hindsight this was the decision that put me in the best position.
As I approached what would become the storm that produced the deadly EF4 Fairdale, IL tornado I was initially unimpressed. It took some driving before I could get a hazy view of the base and wall cloud, which also looked unimpressive to me from that distance. I thought I could avoid the core but it moved above me as I drove south beneath the anvil. I observed heavy rain with occasional pea or dime sized hail. The farther I drove the clearer things became and once I exited the rain and hail, I pulled over. I could tell something was cooking. It was a very organized storm but I expected more visually.
Birth of the Tornado
I stepped out into a calm environment to snap a photo when out of the corner of my eye I saw a huge hailstone land just a few feet away in the field. Hail the size of squashed golf balls inspired me to relocate twice. I wasn’t sure what hail of that size would do to my vehicle (and still don’t thankfully) and figured it wouldn’t hurt to be a little further south. I found a quiet spot where I wasn’t being bombarded hail and turned the cameras on the storm. Everything began to happen really fast. I saw the circulation under the wall cloud wrapping up and a funnel cloud forming. I went into the vehicle to report it only to be blocked twice by my SpotterNet software. I wasn’t happy about it but I knew there must be other chasers in the area who were seeing this. I abandoned the attempt to report and focused back on filming. I also wanted to make sure I was in a safe location.
I had never been in this position before and I wasn’t sure what to do next. The funnel cloud wasted no time making intense connection with the ground becoming my first tornado of 2015. I didn't know if I should film the whole tornado or just the bottom? I didn’t know how to feel or react as the tornado moved across the field beside me. I just watched and recorded it. I forgot about the world around me, the sirens, the wind, everything. Everything was perfect and I quickly realized I couldn’t capture it all, so I truly asked myself what I wanted to film. I just knew that I needed to do what I felt I needed to do and not for any other reason. It had been almost seven years of hard work with very little results. In a matter of minutes everything had worked out perfectly for me. Success was not part of the plan!
As soon as the tornado hit the ground I lost my mind but was still somehow able to keep everything else together. Instinct kicked in. In a moment of peak opportunity every action and decision you make is magnified. I had a hard time making decisions. I don’t know if that was because of the tornado, my inexperience, or both? I felt rushed and that at any second this moment could end. I was certain the tornado would dissipate soon and everything had to happen now. I could not waste one single millisecond.
As my view of the tornado became obstructed, I panicked and became indecisive again. I relocated one hundred feet south to ensure my safety. I stepped out, snapped a couple pictures but there was a hill in the way, so I got back in the vehicle turned around and began to follow the tornado. I crested the hill surprised to see the tornado still in progress and strengthening. This wasn’t part of the plan either.
So I turned east and ran over a 8 foot long chunk of wire. I saw pieces of debris blowing across the field ahead of me. I stopped and got out of the car to get the tripod but the hatchback was locked, so I went back to the driver's seat to open it only to decide that I wasn’t going to stop there anyway. Uggggh! Got back in the car and drove up the road which went up a hill. Once I stopped on the hill I finally got the camera on the tripod. By this time the tornado was over a mile away. It had evolved from a skinny drill bit to a violent wedge tornado and took off. I saw horizontal suction vortices spin around the top. First thought: "Wow, what a great spot to watch!"
The Washing Machine
This wasn’t supposed to happen, but it just kept happening and happening. In seconds my “business as usual” mentality had gone straight off a cliff. I was in mental free fall. There was never a moment to stop, process, grasp, and accept what had just happened. I started believing it wasn’t happening. It was a dream and I would be waking up soon. I was in shock; confused, delusional, amazed, and horrified all at once. I absolutely lost my sense of time and scale. It was magical. It was a “washing machine” polishing the landscape. The mesocyclone was just a flat poster on the sky. I thought it was a miniature storm with a miniature tornado. It couldn’t do any damage.
I couldn’t act. All I could do was watch the tornado from as it continued towards the northeast until it couldn't make it out any longer. The first people I’d seen since touchdown pulled up behind me and snapped me out of it. I came back to reality and asked myself why I was still sitting on this hill? Why wasn’t I chasing it down? So I got in my car and attempted to catch back up. I pushed through Rochelle and saw the interstate was closed so I stuck to the county roads. I could never get closer. I let it get away.
I pulled on to the side of the road southeast of Kirkland and called the chase. I looked north at what was now a major complex of thunderstorms quickly pushing east across northern Illinois. Disappointed I let it get away, it was all starting to sink in. How fast this storm blew up, came and went. It took an hour and a half to get through the tornado’s damage path. I first tried getting through Kirkland on HWY 72 but had to detour towards the south. I and others drove south to the first cross road, then took a right. I had no idea I would get wrapped up in the flood of people trying to get into Fairdale. When that finally hit me I knew I didn’t want to be there so I back-tracked into Kirkland. I’ve never seen so many emergency vehicles.
My new strategy was to go east and try to find a new route north. I got through along County road 15. I saw tree damage and debris lying in the ditches along the road; what could have been a propane tank. Sheet metal shards. For a few miles gravel was all over the road suggesting very strong winds had been persistent across large area.
I never thought a tornado like that would happen. Now that it’s happened I can’t believe I was there to watch it begin. There are plenty of videos out there that show how it ended. It was satisfying to finally be in the perfect spot at the right time considering all the other times I’d failed. For several days following the event I wasn’t sure how to feel. I felt accomplishment for all my hardwork but couldn’t escape the feeling of loss. The decisions I made were not by chance. I knew what I was doing and my moves were calculated. I observed something and I targeted it. When a surface based cell finally got going, the strength of tornado it produced was shocking to everyone."
3 Years Later
Today, my memory of the Fairdale EF-4 tornado feels distant memory like maybe it happened in a different life. If not for the video evidence I might start to believe it was a dream. The words I would use to describe it are not really meteorological in character. I still can't wrap my head around it. The escalation that day. Mother nature flipping the switch. Watching it develop from nothing into a wedge was like going from 1 MPH to lightspeed. It was paralyzing. Something that happens maybe once every 15 years.
There are things I said back then that I don't necessarily agree with today. I wrote to explore my own thoughts but also in defense of myself, to fight the idea that somehow it was random chance that I was in that position. The truth is that I worked very hard for that moment and every decision I made to get there. I also had an issue getting my story to fit. I wasn't there specifically to report severe weather, perform search & rescue, "save lives", or conduct academic research. I believe this is battle most storm chasers with a passion for understanding severe weather face.
In my opinion, this day was not defined by the amount of CAPE, wind shear, parameters, indexes, or potentials. To me it's an understanding and a transcending experience. A lesson learned. The videos and photography are valuable but not as valuable as the experience. An experience and understanding that was shared collectively that day. An experience that can be shared for years to come. I don't have much technical forecasting advice for storm chasers/storm spotters who find themselves in this situation. There is no sounding for making yourself available. No parameter for giving yourself the opportunity. Chasers overthink things. Don't overthink it. Just get there...safely.
The biggest piece of advice I could give anyone is Follow your Intuition. Feel the storm, the energy, and watch for signs. There are only two days in my life where I've told myself "Something is going to happen today, I can feel it". Nature will give you clues and they can be hard to see. It could be as simple as a flock of birds fleeing the approaching storm. These messages emerge from within and means something to you. It's not a thought, there is no thinking involved. Call it divine intervention, sometimes it's the only thing I believe. Just chase the storm and worry about everything else later. Everything happens or doesn't happen for a reason.
I hope a tornado of this intensity never occurs in Wisconsin again (Oakfield) but I know someday it will, and I will be there waiting when it does.
SPC Event Summary