Last Thursday's devil winds won't soon be forgotten in the Georgian Triangle.
A sultry summer's day -- one of the few we've enjoyed this summer -- showed a split personality late in the afternoon as what's been tentatively identified as a series of tornadoes spawned by highly-unstable thunderstorm super-cells whirled into central Grey County to the southwest of Collingwood.
At least one twister savaged the small towns of Durham and Markdale and the hamlet of Eugenia before tracking northeast into the west end of The Blue Mountains. One fatality -- an 11-year-old boy -- was recorded in Durham. The storm then rampaged through the Ravenna area southwest of Thornbury before dervishing down the Blue Mountains range into the Georgian Peaks ski club.
Environment Canada meteorologist Peter Kimbell said they had received multiple reports of tornadoes, including ones in Durham, Craigleith and in the GTA. The damage was caused by part of a long line of strong thunderstorms that passed through the area in the afternoon and stretched from the GTA to North Bay, said Kimbell.
"It's unusual to have that many reports of tornadoes, so in that sense it's very severe," he said of the line of storms.
Kimbell, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada said they have confirmed F2 tornadoes hit Vaughan, Durham and The Blue Mountains.
An F0 tornado -- the smallest on the five point scale used by meteorologists --was seen in the Muskoka area.
There were also tornadoes confirmed in Newmarket and Milton. There was also a report of a tornado in North Bay and a report of damage north of Belleville, but it had not been confirmed if they were tornadoes.
Kimbell said Monday morning that between five and seven tornados had been confirmed with last week's storm.
Kimbell said an F2 is a significant tornado, with an F-5 being the worst. The massive tornado that hit Barrie in 1985 with damage to the Shelburne and Arthur areas as well, was an F4 twister, the most powerful documented in Ontario.
"If you have an F5 your house just disappears, it is flattened," said Kimbell. "An F2 is the kind of stuff that has been observed such as roofs gone."
Kimbell said it was possible that the system that caused damage in Markdale and the Thornbury/Craigleith area were from the same tornado that hit Durham, but the evidence currently being evaluated by Environment Canada suggests they were two separate twisters.
Kimbell said that they won't know for quite some time how long the system that hit Durham and possibly Markdale and the Thornbury area stayed on the ground.
Kimbell said the occurrence of so many twisters in one day has happened in Ontario in the past.
On Aug. 2, 2006, there were 14 tornadoes in one day in cottage country northeast of Toronto, and May 31, 1985, there were 13 tornadoes -- one of them the infamous Barrie tornado.
"It has happened before and it will happen again," said Kimbell].
The Georgian Triangle area isn't as prone to tornadoes as some other spots, notably Ontario's tornado alley that stretches from Windsor through Vaughan and Barrie, he said. The proximity to the moderating influence of Georgian Bay drives twisters further inland--under normal circumstances.
The province averages 11 documented tornadoes a year. That documentation requires clear visual evidence as well as damage that can be attributed to a twister. So far this year, the agency has recorded 14 twisters.
Kimbell said it is actually quite late in the year to have so many tornadoes at one time.
"We are the end of August now so it usually starts cooling off," said Kimbell. "We had the warm air mass and the right setup in term of winds and instability and sunshine, therefore the conditions were just right."
Kimbell said there isn't enough properly- documented historical data to judge whether tornadoes are increasing in Ontario.
At Georgian Peaks, an undetermined number of chalet condominiums suffered heavy damage along the Georgian Trail, as did the ski club itself.
A storage building was dropped in a corner just off the main parking lot, and a worker who asked to remain anonymous said he wasn't sure where it had come from. He estimated the damage to the club, particularly the tree and slopes, at a "couple of million dollars."
A hall was badly damaged, while steel roofing had wrapped itself around a Caterpillar shovel nearby. More debris was strewn along the ski runs, already festooned with snapped-off trees.
One resident of the area, who also asked that his name not be published, said he and his wife fled their house as the storm arrived.
"I was just lying down for an nap when it hit," he said. "I didn't see much of anything. It just got very dark and we left. We spent the night with our son, who has a place on top of the mountain."
He complained that the police weren't allowing anyone near their homes early Friday morning to check the damage. He said at least eight of the 16 residences suffered damage.
Sgt. Rob Graham of the Collingwood- Blue Mountain OPP said that was because of the downed power lines, some of which might still have been active.
"Environment Canada shouldn't have any doubt that we had a tornado this time," said a sombre Graham, who was helping to direct traffic on Highway 26 just east of the club while clean-up operations p>The OPP closed the highway down for approximately three hours Thursday night following the storm to begin clearing debris and stabilizing downed power lines.
The storm left a clear swath of damage right across the highway, snapping off hydro poles like the proverbial matchsticks.
It was clear the storm had hopped down the Niagara Escarpment and headed out into Georgian Bay, something Graham said was confirmed by witnesses.
He wasn't sure if the storm had caused a waterspout, but that seemed likely.
"At least it couldn't hurt anything out there -- except maybe boaters," the unidentified Georgian Peaks resident said.
Kimbell said that it wasn't unheard of for a tornado to head out over water such as Georgian Bay, but it was uncommon. Waterspouts are common occurrences on Lake Erie, he said, and less so on Georgian Bay.
From Highway 26, the damage to the homes at the ski club was quite visible. The roof of one chalet-style house was nearly ripped off, with obvious damage to others. Pink foam insulation was strewn through the nearby trees like a blanket--those that were still standing, that is.
No injuries were reported.
"It was unbelievable. I never felt more scared in my entire life," said Georgian Peaks employee Nic Elias, who took shelter inside the club's Alpine Centre as the twister ripped its steel roof from the rafters.
Witnesses at Georgian Peaks said the twister raced down the private ski hill, pulling cables from chair lifts and sending ski huts and ramps into the air, before ripping the roof and garage doors from the Alpine Centre and carving a path of destruction through cottages and condominiums.
Georgian Peaks general manager Rick Trumble said the Alpine Centre, which houses a large maintenance area, cafeteria and race club headquarters, sustained about $500,000 in damage. Yellow insulation was strewn across the resort and twisted metal lay around the steel building.
Several start and finish huts, valued at $10,000 apiece, were also destroyed.
Trumble said the twister left the resort's summer club and its swimming pool, where children were hunkered down inside, untouched.
"It could have been a lot worse," he said. "You can always rebuild buildings."
Kevin McPhatter, a snowmaking supervisor at Georgian Peaks, said he watched the twister approach from the top of the ski hill.
"We could see debris about 1,000 feet up," he said. "It was the loudest noise you ever heard."
McPhatter, three co-workers and a pet dog tried to seek shelter in a below-ground space, he said, but the twister approached too quickly, leaving them trapped inside the Alpine Centre until it disappeared seconds later.
Jennifer Goruk and her two children, 11-year-old Regi and two-year-old Scout, were evacuated from their cottage by police about an hour after the twister swirled overhead at about 4:30 p. m. Police stopped her from returning to the cottage the next day.
The twister's winds downed every tree on her property, she said, causing windows to smash and a deck to rip away. A neighbour's roof landed on her driveway.
The Goruks hid inside a main-floor sauna, which was turned off, until the winds calmed.
"When you realize what it is, it's just the most terrifying thing," she said.
Scout called the twister "the monster that broke my house."
David Beard, who owns a home next to Nottawasaga Bay off Wards Rd., said he witnessed the twister dissipate over the water.
To the west near Ravenna, a 200- metre swath of damage had taken down most of the power lines in the area and uprooted apple trees in the orchards. The line of damage was almost linear with the northeast-tracking storm that hit Georgian Peaks.
Another twister was photographed near Sunnidale Corners.
"Our hearts and prayers go out to those affected by this storm," said The Blue Mountains Mayor Ellen Anderson. "We want to thank our firefighters, our police and other town staff who've responded to this situation so professionally. We also want to thank our neighbouring municipalities for their support and kindness.
"It's important, now, that we support those who need our help. We ask that people not involved in the work stay away from the affected areas and allow our people to get on with their work."
Blue Mountains officials are compiling complete lists of damages, as well as a list of available resources and requests for assistance, Anderson said on the weekend.
"We want them on the list," Anderson said. "We want to register them so we know who they are and how they've been affected."
Anderson did not yet know exactly how many properties were damaged in The Blue Mountains, but reported estimates said the twister hit about 25 seasonal homes near Georgian Peaks Ski Club, along with barns; hundreds of acres of valuable apple orchards were also ripped up nearby.
"I've been on-site. You'll see what looks like a nice green field with nothing in it, and it was an orchard. The trees are gone. They're somewhere else," said Anderson.
"The businesses and the people are rallying around the victims as usual. This is a wonderful region and community that we have here," Anderson said in a telephone interview from her home Saturday.
With cleanup expected to take many days, she said compiling lists of who needs what and who has what to offer will speed the recovery process. Blue Mountains officials were also to contact service clubs to enlist volunteer help and expertise.
"Many people are already on-site at the various farms, without us even organizing the volunteers," Anderson said. "And if I know the people here, we may get those lists compiled and a good majority of the work will already be done."
Anyone who can help or provide skills and equipment should contact the town office at 519-599-3131 or e-mail Anderson directly.
"What we will definitely be doing, and what we've already started doing, is we will definitely go to bat and try to get them the help and the assistance that they just deserve," said Anderson.
She asked that anyone who knows of people whose property was damaged but who may not have registered or otherwise asked for help to contact her directly in confidence.
"I'd like to know about those people, so perhaps we could get them some help," the mayor said.
"This is going to take a long time to clean up," Anderson said. "It's going to take a long time to heal and there are going to be people that will need continuous support, psychologically, morally and perhaps financially. Hopefully we can help access the resources these people need to make their lives a little easier to cope with."
Tornadoes in the Georgian Triangle haven't been a common occurrence in recent years. However, just to the west of us, the Grey-Bruce area has virtually become a tornado alley in the last two decades. There's hardly been a year when at least one report of a tornado hasn't made the news.
Two weeks ago, there were suspicions that a tornado had touched down in Meaford. Environment Canada officials later said the damage was caused by a down-burst -- a literal air-bomb of powerful winds directed downward, instead of the swirling winds of a tornado.
In August of 2006, during the storms that Kimbell mentioned, there were suspicions that one had touched down in Collingwood near Blue Shores, but that was not confirmed.
In June of 2006, a twister blasted through just south of Nottawa, leveling a driving shed.
In July of 1999, twisters were spotted in The Blue Mountains and Grey Highlands areas.
-With files from Sun Media