Inside Toronto

Wexler Mirror photo/JOHN QUBTI

Danny Wexler, 35, works as a mechanic in an Eglinton Avenue car dealership by day, and is a self-proclaimed "weather-nut" the rest of the time.

Scarborough mechanic enjoys chasing nature's wrath.

Jan. 29, 2003
Chances are that when the next thunderstorm hits Scarborough, Danny Wexler will be the first to know. The 35 year old works as a mechanic in an Eglinton Avenue car dealership by day and is a self-proclaimed "weather-nut" the rest of the time. He has invested more than $20,000 in his 1991 Chevrolet Blazer 4x4 in weather tracing equipment and vanity license plates that read "strmchsr".

Inside his truck, he can watch satellite images of pending storms, send faxes and e-mails.

The radio equipment starts at walkie-talkie range and goes all the way to contacting the space station and speaking to anyone around the world. If he was in the southern U.S., he can open a link and speak to someone in Toronto.

Wexler's fascination with extreme weather began at the age of seven when he was attracted to a local park during a hailstorm.

He was hooked when he saw hail the size of grapefruits and a bolt of lightning strike a tree not far away.

But it has been since he began to drive that Wexler's love for tornadoes began to pick up steam above all other extreme weather conditions.

Wexler said he still religiously watches the 1995 movie 'Twister'.

"We had to buy a new version of the tape because it was so worn out," he joked.

Wexler actually witnessed the deadly tornado that hit Barrie, Ont. In May of 1985.

Wexler, 18 at the time, drove in and out of downpours, hail, and lightning to reach the scene. He was armed with a CB radio, a paper with emergency phone numbers and a pocket full of quarters to call Environment Canada with the reports.

"I wasn't that scared, I just wish I had brought a camera that day," he said.

Tornadoes of any magnitude rarely hit Ontario as they mainly develop in the flat planes of mid-west United States.

So that area became his target. He has visited every state on the eastern U.S. seaboard chasing tornadoes.

He is known as The Communicator in his circle of about 10 storm chasing friends. They have all passed a test set by Environment Canada called CANWARN (Canadian Weather Amateur Radio Network).

Essentially, it's a volunteer organization made up of VHF and UHF ham radio operators who spot and report severe weather conditions to Environment Canada. Their task is known as "ground truthing" and requires them to provide visual confirmation of extreme weather conditions spotted by satellites and radar.

Everyone "volunteers time and money for the love of chasing," Wexler said.

Occasionally, Wexler has sold pictures and videotape to local news outlets, but that is the only money he makes.

When Environment Canada's weather centres issue severe weather watches or warnings, they alert the CANWARN volunteers at the organization's regional stations in the affected areas. The volunteers look for early signs of severe weather including hail, snow, and funnel clouds, which when they touch land become tornadoes.

CANWARN started in 1987 and today there are 12 co-ordinators in Ontario and more than 2,000 spotters. In the U.S., when members spot severe weather conditions they alert SKYWARN, which is similar to CANWARN. Wexler is licensed in both countries.

Wexler's truck has been damaged severely several times due including several confrontations with lightning bolts.

"The lightning is attracted to my antenna, and the truck just shakes," he said with a smile.

After the damage, Wexler takes it to his shop and makes the necessary repairs to get it back on the road.

Wexler described the winter months as the "off season" for extreme weather patterns. During the winter months, he visits elementary schools in York Region to discuss weather safety. He doesn't encourage and youngsters to chase storm because they don't have the proper equipment and experience.

And he admitted his wife Gail thinks he's a little crazy when it comes to his fascination with weather.

When they first got married their vacations would be taken around the time when extreme weather would strike in the United States. "Sometimes she gets on my case, but she's used to it by now."