Bob Burns of Vanguard is an Environment Canada weather watcher. The 71-year-old retired farmer is one of several hundred volunteers, from all walks of life, who monitor and report on the weather in their home communities.
Today, many weather watchers collect their data from small boxed-in weather stations in their backyards. But in 2000, Burns had only a V-shaped, plastic rain gauge that he picked up at the Swift Current Co-op and a 1-800 telephone number that would put him in immediate contact with Environment Canada meteorologists in Winnipeg. Neither would be of much help to him on Monday, July 3.
Vanguard was just getting over a high school reunion that holiday weekend when menacing thunderheads started to build in the early afternoon. The wind came up and thunder rumbled overhead. Burns watched the sky while the clouds circled as if zeroing in on the community in southwestern Saskatchewan.
Little did he know that a complex of thunderstorms, known as a mesoscale convective system, had formed over Vanguard and was being held in place by the northerly wind. In other words, there was the potential for a “weather event” — in this case, lots of rainfall over several hours.
The heavens opened around 4:30 p.m. and for the next eight hours, the rain came down in torrents. Burns likened it to someone turning on the tap and walking away.
Throughout the storm, Burns faithfully made his way out to his rain gauge — a trip he made five times to read the level and dump out the water. It was an unnerving experience, not simply because of the intensity of the rain but the constant boom of thunder and flashes of lightning. His three calls to Environment Canada that evening were met with the assurance that it would soon be over.
When the storm finally lifted, leaving behind an eerie silence except for the sound of rushing water, Burns calculated that at least 333 millimetres (13 inches) of rain had fallen in Vanguard.
Water was everywhere, flooding homes, businesses, and fields. Local roads and the railway were submerged, while stranded townspeople and farm families had to be rescued by boat. Cattle, deer, and antelope were found drowned.
What made things worse was that Vanguard sits in a slight depression and water rolled down the hills in small waves into the community.
“It was like a wall of water,” recalled Mayor Dorothy Saunderson at the time. Notukeu Creek, normally a sluggish stream, was turned into a fast-moving river one and a half kilometres wide in places.
It took several months for Vanguard to get back on its feet. One of the ironies is that the torrential rain had damaged the water and sewage system, and bottled water had to be brought in.
One of the most poignant comments was provided by a Western Producer reporter. As the water level dropped in pastures, exposing the tops of fence posts, Sean Pratt observed, “Clumps of soggy grass hang from the first few strands of barbed wire like rows of tattered socks on a clothesline.”
Once the precipitation data was collected and analyzed, Environment Canada determined that 375 millimetres of rain had fallen on July 3. That amount of rain translated into the largest documented storm of that duration in the history of the Canadian prairies.
The normal annual amount of precipitation for Vanguard, one of the driest regions in the province, is about 385 millimetres — roughly the same amount that fell on July 3.
The “perfect storm,” as it has been dubbed, also produced more lightning strikes in those eight hours than normally experienced in the region in a two-year period.
Finally, the water from the storm — a third of a billion cubic metres — did not simply disappear. Only about 40 per cent found its way into Notukeu Creek. Sixty per cent of the rain was retained on the ground.
Scientists analyzed the impact of the storm on the area’s wetlands and made a surprising discovery.
Herbicides were expected to be in the water from local agricultural activity, but not certain pesticides. It turns out that the weather system had picked up these chemical products in parts of the United States and then carried them into Canada. Among them was a pesticide used on Texas cotton crops.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: The Vanguard thunderstorm was one for the record books.
Photo By: Bill Waiser
Bill Waiser’s latest book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905, is now available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers.