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40th Anniversary of San Joaquin Valley “Once in a Lifetime” Wind & Dust Storm

20 Dec 2017, 9:25 am

[Dust plume rising to nearly a mile high over the San Joaquin Valley near Bakersfield, California in December of 1977. The shot was taken at 5000 feet from a twin engine plane. Photo by Sam Chase via USGS]

A “Once in a Lifetime” wind and dust storm struck the south end of the San Joaquin Valley in California, starting on this date 40 years ago and continuing to December 21, 1977. Winds reached 88 mph at Arvin before the anemometer broke and gusts were estimated at 192 mph at Arvin by a U.S. Geological Survey. Meadows Field in Bakersfield recorded sustained 46 mph winds with a gust of 63 mph. The strong winds generated a wall of dust resembling a tidal wave that was 5,000 feet high over Arvin. Blowing sand stripped painted surfaces to bare metal and trapped people in vehicles for several hours. 70% of homes received structural damage in Arvin, Edison and East Bakersfield. 120,000 Kern County customers lost power. Agriculture was impacted as 25 million tons of soil was loosened from grazing lands. Five people died and damages totaled $40 million dollars, not including subsequent agricultural losses.


[Honda Canyon Fire from Joseph N. Valencia via Wild Fire Lessons Learned Center]

The wind was strong enough to cause drifting sand to pile-up and plug highways, bury cars, blow-out windows in vehicles, and denude the landscape. The raised dust from the event dimmed the sun as far north as Reno, Nevada. Dust was found several months later embedded in the snow of Mount Shasta in Northern California.

[Weather setup that produced the intense winds. From Joseph N. Valencia via Wild Fire Lessons Learned Center]

The area had been under a two year drought, the worst through that time. Cotton crops had been recently harvested and the winter crop had not grown, leaving top soil loose and exceptionally dry. A strong low pressure center and cold front moved into the region from the west as an area of high pressure remained anchored across the Southwest. This created a significant pressure difference, driving the exceptionally strong winds. As the dry desert air was forced into the valley between mountain canyons, it compressed and warmed, drying further.

These strong winds also spread a large fire through the Honda Canyon on Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California. This fire, which started from a power pole on Tranquillon Ridge being blown over, claimed the lives of Base Commander Colonel Joseph Turner, Fire Chief Billy Bell and Assistant Fire Chief Eugene Cooper. Additionally, severe burns were experienced by Heavy Equipment Operator Clarence McCauley.  He later died due to complications from the burns.  You can read more about the Honda Canyon Fire at this link.

Information from National Weather Service and Wild Fire Lessons Learned Center

Edited for WeatherNation by Meteorologist Mace Michaels

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