Over the last several weeks, I’ve written about different types of vortexes (whirlpools and dust devils). Today, I would like to talk about tornadoes.
Even though the vast majority of tornadoes occur east of the Rocky Mountains, California is not immune from these violently rotating columns of air. There have been 396 confirmed tornadoes from 1950 through 2012 in the state. Most of the state’s tornadoes occur south of Point Conception and in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. Generally, almost all were rated weak on the Fujita scale. The California county with the greatest number of confirmed tornadoes is Los Angeles with 43, followed by Orange at 31. San Bernardino, the largest county in the United States by area, recorded 29 twisters, followed by San Diego at 26.
As you head northward along the California coast, the rate of tornado occurrences diminishes. San Luis Obispo County has only recorded two confirmed tornadoes.
The first happened April 7, 1926, when a Pacific storm came in from the west and produced lightning. The lightning struck large oil tanks along Tank Farm Road. Altogether, more than 5 million gallons of oil burned over five days. It was reported that burning oil made it all the way to Avila Beach by way of San Luis Obispo Creek. Intense heat from these fires produced hundreds of fire whirls — many of them showed characteristics of true tornadoes. One of the fire tornados traveled 1,000 yards, picked up a house and carried it 150 feet, killing the two occupants inside.
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The other tornado that hit San Luis Obispo occurred May 5, 1998. At the time, I was living on the corner of Kentucky and Fredericks streets in a neighborhood near Cal Poly where it touched down. At first, I thought it was a fast moving train along California Boulevard.
However, my anemometer — a device to measure wind force — was fluctuating from 60 to
70 mph. Tree branches were breaking, and then I saw debris rotating in a counterclockwise direction — clear evidence that a tornado was occurring. Later that day, the National Weather Service came out to the site and confirmed that a low-level tornado had indeed occurred.
Here’s an interesting detail about this area near Cal Poly. Evidently, there may have been another whirlwind that occurred at this location back in the 1950s or ’60s. If you have any material or stories about this, I would love to hear from you. Can you please send me an email or send a letter to John Lindsey (PG&E) 4325 S. Higuera St., San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
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PG&E delivers some of the nation’s cleanest power. Nearly 60 percent of the electricity the company provides to customers comes from sources that are renewable and/or emit no greenhouse gases.
John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a media relations representative for PG&E and a longtime local meteorologist. If you have a question, send him an email at