Pine Lake tornado: Reflecting on the devastating storm 19 years later

Footage of a waterspout forming over Cold Lake in northeast Alberta made social media rounds on June 28, with viewers marvelling at the formidable, but ultimately harmless, display of nature.

Tornadoes aren’t an altogether unusual sight in Canada, especially in their peak season of mid-June to early August. The country gets an average of 80 twisters a year, with more in Alberta than any other province, according to Environment Canada.

But footage like that of the waterspout in Cold Lake brings to surface memories of some of Canada’s much rarer deadly tornadoes, including the devastating Pine Lake tornado of July 14, 2000.

Sunday marks the 19th anniversary of the F3 storm that struck the Green Acre Campground in Pine Lake, killing 12, injuring 140 and causing an inflation-adjusted $18.2 million in damages.

“It’s as though a steamroller had actually gone through it and flattened it out,” RCMP Const. Dan Doyle told Postmedia at the time.

The central Alberta storm came as a surprise to campers and meteorologists alike, seeming to appear out of nowhere and dissipating in only five minutes.

“It’s a combination of factors that came into play that are basically generational in nature,” said Environment Canada meteorologist Dan Kulak on the Pine Lake twister.

“The combinations of moisture in the atmosphere and the tendency for overturning of the atmosphere and wind directions and wind shears in the atmosphere and jet streams. All the things that meteorologists look at, everything was just right in that wrong sort of way.”

In the days that followed, over 100 people worked on the search and rescue mission in and around the campgrounds.

Today at the Green Acre Campground, there’s little evidence of the terror that rolled through the site 19 years ago. Other than a small memorial grove, where 12 trees were grown to represent the 12 lives lost in the storm, you wouldn’t know what had happened in the now-rebuilt campground by looking at it.

Such types of tornadoes are exceedingly rare in Canada. The Pine Lake tornado is the fourth-deadliest in the country’s history. In Alberta, only Edmonton’s devastating “Black Friday” storm on July 31, 1987, caused more destruction, when winds of up to 417 km/hr killed 27 people and razed buildings in the Strathcona Industrial Park.

This year, there’s already more tornadoes reported than Environment Canada would expect for the whole summer. But Kulak says a big part of that is likely the emergence of amateur storm reporting on social media.

“It’s going to be a little bit of challenge to say how one year compares to, say, 10 years ago,” he said, adding that storms are now more likely to hit population centres than in the past due to the rapid expansion of many of Canada’s urban areas.