Storm chasers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Leslie Laster Burton and Dean Burton call it their easiest chase, even though the haul to a remote corner of Colorado was interminable. Along the way the hunt sent them up to Nebraska and down to Oklahoma. The weather had remained mild but held stormy potential.

Finally, appearing before them was something magnificent: a ghostly white tornado posing alongside a brilliant rainbow. Storm chasers are drawn by weather's fury, of course, but also by its beauty.

"We were on a dirt road and we had to move to get into position, and as we rounded a bend there was the tornado again, and this time with that rainbow," Leslie said. "It was so beautiful, and it only lasted one minute."

The storm-chasing married couple from Independence, Mo., seasoned and technologically equipped, have upped their game year by year, snagging nine tornadoes since 2002.

They've attended weather classes and training conventions, become experts at weather radar, obtained ham radio licenses and bought a proper storm-chasing vehicle, a Jeep Cherokee, to replace their hail-pocked Ford Taurus.

The Burtons follow storms for local meteorologist Gary Lezak, provide data to the National Weather Service and sell storm photos on their website — a rather consuming hobby. How did it all start?

Most enthusiasts point to weather incidents in childhood that fired their interest. For Dean, it was lightning. He wanted to take photos of those magnificent flashes but always failed with his instant camera. One day at age 12, he was watching a storm through the screen door when lightning struck the front yard, splitting a tree.

"The air pressure almost knocked me down," he said. "Afterward I could see the lightning for about 10 minutes when I closed my eyes."

Leslie had recurrent tornado dreams as a teenager. They weren't scary, particularly, but always frustrating: "I wanted to take a picture of the tornado, but I never had my camera with me."

Fast-forward to 2002, when Leslie saw a mention in a magazine about experienced storm chasers offering ride-alongs. She had always wanted to see a tornado in person but never had considered going out to find one. She and Dean signed up. They took notes. They were hooked. But for Leslie's first tornado, during a ride-along without Dean, an insect stole the drama.

"A bug flew in my eye," she said. "I'm trying to video and all you can hear me saying is, 'There's a bug in my eye. There's a bug in my eye.' I didn't get to enjoy it."

The first tornado the couple witnessed together was on Memorial Day weekend three years ago in Iowa during a "Particularly Dangerous Situation," an actual risk designation issued by the weather service meteorologists. That was the weekend of an EF5 tornado — the strongest tornado classification — in Parkersburg. The tornado they observed was a spinoff of the EF5.

"It passed right in front of us," Leslie said. "The sky was charcoal black. In all our chasing I've never seen the sky that dark. I'll never forget that color."

In storm chasing, planning and patience are everything. The Burtons don't chase on a moment's notice. They study potential storms days ahead before setting out. Fortunately, they have bosses — she's a data transcriber, he sells auto parts — who allow flexible hours during storm season.

Still, promising storms don't always pan out. Duds are an occupational hazard.

Of course, hazard can be an occupational hazard. To the Burtons, knowing how to stay safe aren't empty words. They encourage anyone interested in storm chasing to first accompany experienced chasers.

A close call with a massive tornado, for them a "safe" close call, just a few weeks ago outside Mapleton, Iowa, cemented their conviction against casual storm chasing.

"We were close to the outer circulation of that tornado," Dean said.

So near to it that they couldn't get the widest part of the tornado in their camera viewfinder. With Dean driving and Leslie on the laptop — "we're a little white dot on the radar" — they knew their location in relation to the storm.

Afterward, as they drove into town, lightweight debris was still fluttering to the ground. In fact, they arrived before the first emergency responders. Power lines were draped across roads. They called 9-1-1 but wanted to do more. The storm had destroyed or damaged 60 percent of Mapleton.

They realized their next step was to get certification as auxiliary disaster responders through Community Emergency Response Team training. They signed up for the fall.

"We knew it was bound to happen, that we would some day come into a town that had just been hit," Leslie said.

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