York Region

Auto shop owner has eye for storms

Roger Varley
Mar 4, 2003

When severe thunderstorms strike, most people duck for cover.
`Not Dan Wexler. He jumps into his truck and heads straight for them.

Dan WexlerMr. Wexler is a certified weather spotter and storm chaser who spends his summers looking for tornadoes, a weather phenomenon he says is becoming less of a rarity in southern Ontario.

"This is an obsessive hobby and expensive," said the 36-year-old Thornhill resident as he created his own swirl of papers, magazines, booklets and texts in his hobby room to help explain tornadoes. Around the room are calendars and posters featuring pictures of lightning strikes and funnel clouds, various video tapes and DVDs of tornado documentaries and movies -- he has already worn out two copies of the movie Twister -- T-shirts and sweatshirts with weather-related logos and, on a shelf above his desk, a tornado in a bottle.

Mr. Wexler's obsession began one spring night when he was seven. He remembers it well.

"It was April 3, 1974, when we had what is now known as a super outburst. There were about 128 (tornado) touchdowns from Texas to Ontario.

"The storm woke me up, but I wasn't frightened," he recalled. "It was the middle of the night and it looked like daytime. The sky was constant lightning and I thought it was the most amazing thing.

"I've loved every storm that's come since," he said.

His first encounter with a tornado came 11 years later, when Barrie was hit by a Force 4 tornado May 31, 1985.

(On the Fujita scale, Mr. Wexler explained, tornadoes are measured from F0, strong enough to bend a TV antenna, to F5, which leaves little standing in its wake. The majority of Ontario tornadoes are F0 or F1.)

He chased that 1985 storm cell relying on radio and TV reports alone and, although he didn't see the tornado that caused heavy damage to the city, he spotted a smaller tornado nearby.

Now, having spent years studying tornadoes and the weather systems that give birth to them, he's fully prepared for the chase. His truck -- licence plate STRMCHSR -- is equipped with two UHF and VHF amateur radio sets, a portable ham radio, CB radio, cell phone, scanners, a weather radio, a video camera clamped inside his windshield, two still cameras, a laptop computer with Internet access and Global Positioning System, a 700-watt power inverter and emergency equipment. He also an array of maps, including detailed maps of rural roads.

When it's time to start chasing, Mr. Wexler usually works in co-operation with other members of CANWARN -- the Canada Weather Amateur Radio Network -- a group of radio hams who have taken an Environment Canada course that explains storms, how they form and what conditions lead to tornadoes.


'The storm woke me up, but I wasn't frightened ... I thought it was the most amazing thing.'
"They (Environment Canada) don't endorse chasing tornadoes," Mr. Wexler said. "We choose to chase. We're always in radio contact and we try to surround the storm."

He admitted the main motivation is the thrill of the chase, but not to the point of unnecessary risk.

"When you're doing what we do, you have to take the romanticism out of it," he said. "You can't chase a storm without thinking about what you're doing. One single supercell thunderstorm can be the size of two Everests. Lightning could fry you on the spot. You can get maimed, killed or whatever.

"But if it's a supercell, I'm there."

Mr. Wexler said the closest he has been to a tornado is about one-eighth of a mile, but he's just as thrilled to report his friend, George, was within 100 yards of a twister.

Mr. Wexler doesn't get to chase all the storms.

"I do work and have a family -- he has two young sons -- so there have been a couple of storms I've missed by choice," he said.

It helps, however, he owns his own auto repair business. Not only does it give him more freedom, it helps when his truck is damaged. Last year, his truck was badly dented by hail and his windshield was blown out.

He wanted to take courses in meteorology but found there are none available in Canadian schools.

<***overflow***>"They offer atmospheric sciences, with only a minor in meteorology," he said.

So he went to flight school at Buttonville airport after high school, where he learned as much about meteorology as he could. He also found the Internet helped.

"I'm pretty much self-taught," he admitted, "I'm no expert."