I’ve been watching the weather (well I always do that) for almost a week now. By reading forecasts, studying weather models and in general watching the sky a little more closely. First the heat wave that was not really a barn burner -not in Santa Rosa anyway- which then left everyone freezing by Saturday night as a colossal push of marine air filtered through the coastal gap. Then the fire weather watches that were posted by the National Weather Service for dry lightning strikes touched off by a cutoff low in Southern California.
The low spun moisture counterclockwise over the Sierra Range, and then funneled right over the North Bay. I kept looking at the sky yesterday evening, knowing that we were going to have a nocturnal lightning bust. That pesky marine layer makes it really difficult to photograph lightning of any kind. I had a mental road map worked out, knowing that most of the strikes would travel east to west and generally over the geysers area. I knew I needed to get above the mess of stratus to get decent pictures.
When the first rumbles started, I headed for Pine Flat Road near Healdsburg. I figured at a little over 3,000 feet in elevation this route would get me above the fog layer. Those of you who have driven Pine Flat on a good day, can appreciate the road in bad weather. Holy moly, what a mess getting up to the top. Lightning strikes everywhere, much too dangerous to step out and shoot a photograph. Wouldn’t have done much good anyway, the fog was so thick it would have been like photographing a blizzard with a strobe at night. Everything was white. At the very top, the stratus layer was as thick as ever. Couldn’t see anything except for the blue haze when lighting struck. Back down the mountain. Still couldn’t see a darn thing.
Finally in the Alexander Valley, rain mixed out the marine layer.
That said, I shot from the car window to try and make some sort of picture. Every time I would step out of the car, lightning would spray crawlers miles across the sky. It was intimidating to say the least and I didn’t want to be a lightning rod to a 18,000 degree step leader. No fried photog on this day.
I’ve not seen a storm like this before on the North Coast. Not with that much electricity flying through the air and the ferocity of the thunder. This type of electrical storm is relegated to the midwest, where it’s a daily springtime frenzy.
The clouds parted enough to make a few frames, but nothing spectacular. As quickly as it began, the storm moved off over the Pacific Ocean.
My son who will be 14 in a few days, is old enough to know that his dad is a little…aggressive around the edges when a storm hits. He asked me why I go out and make these pictures in wild weather.
I gave him this analogy: Let’s say you are the best player on your MLB team and are headed to the World Series. The day before the start, you trip and break your leg (I would do that, because I’m klutzy enough) preventing you from missing the biggest games of your career. Now you could say, weather is my World Series. Missing out on weather phenomena, the very outrageous way it bowls you over when you witness something incredible, is my panacea, a remedy to test my own limits against nature. He seemed to accept the explanation.
It’s about passion, trying to capture something that can be deadly but beautiful at the same time.
Ask any storm chaser out there. They will tell you the same thing. It’s something you are born with; an almost indescribable feeling.
This is not to say that I’m reckless. I take no chances when photographing lightning. An inherent risk exists. But hey, so is driving a car on the freeway or walking down a sidewalk.