Photo: Tempest Tours (with permission)
Next off in the line of interviews with members of storm chasing tour companies is Bill Reid, tour guide of Tempest Tours. Bill is one of the most experienced storm chasers you will find out on the Plains – and is a very popular tour guide.
Where do you live when you don’t chase storms?
I live in Los Angeles but I grew up in the San Fernando Valley and have always lived in this area. I live near mom and five brothers and sisters and a lot of nieces and nephews, so I see family quite often! I have never been married or had
kids. That certainly made it easier to get away for extended periods to chase.
How did you end up starting to chase storms? Was there one specific event or was it a general interest since child hood?
I don’t think that there was ever one or two particular events which got me interested. I grew up interested in science and astronomy. I took a weather course in high school and enjoyed that. I started college as a physics/astronomy major but quickly switched to geography/climatology because that was more interesting (and easier) for me. What I liked doing very much was measuring the elements and running my backyard weather station. I was the official “weather man” for Woodland Hills for the NWS in the 1980s and 1990s.
My family took almost annual summer vacation trips by car to Omaha to visit relatives. I loved to monitor the weather forecast and to watch for thunderstorms. Many storms seemed to move through late at night, so I would be up at 2 a.m. watching the lightning. Of course, this type of weather was extremely rare in L.A. Once I had a drivers license, I could drive close to the thunderstorms in the Omaha area. I did this a couple of times in the mid-late 1970s. I think I chased thunderstorms/lightning on one or two occasions in the California desert way back then, too. So, thunderstorms were always exciting for me growing up.
Around 1990 or 1991, my friend from college shared a storm-chasing VHS tape or two with me (by Jim Leonard and Tim Marshall). After watching the fun these chasers were having and seeing and hearing what they were experiencing, I knew that I had to try that, too. I had not ever really known anything about REAL storm chasing prior to that, though I had read an article on it in Weatherwise prior to then. It is interesting that that article did nothing to get me started in storm chasing (the article was published around 1985 or 86, I think).
I never really thought about chasing storms prior to about 1991. I never thought about seeing a tornado — I thought that if I ever did, it would have to be by pure happenstance and luck. In fact, my first tornado sighting was a weak one near Sterling, Colorado, on a drive with my family from Grand Junction to Omaha in early August, 1988. I was thrilled! But not even that got me started in storm chasing. After viewing those tapes (shared by my friend Charles) was the big tornado outbreak on April 26, 1991, in OK and KS, which featured a lot of tornado footage by chasers. That was the clincher — I bought a Hi-8 Sony camcorder for $1600 and headed to the Plains by myself in Late May, 1991.
Do you remember your first solo chase? How did it go?
And so my first real chase on the Plains was from about May 24 to 27, 1991, in CO, NE, and KS. On the first two days I was amidst severe weather and had a blast, and even saw a distant tornado. I didn’t know what I was doing, of course. I was by myself and was just really happy to hear thunder and see lightning.
After chasing storms for nearly 30 years, do you still get the same awe and excitement when you see a storm/tornado?
It is always a great thrill and a rush to witness a spectacular storm, with or without a tornado. Of course, after all of these years, I suppose the “excitement factor” is not quite as great. Or maybe I should say, it takes a really exceptional storm now to crank up the excitement level to maximum. I am usually busy trying to make sure that we are safe and in the right place, and/or trying to get good video and photos, so I don’t get to relax much and take it all in.
Have your focus changed over the years in terms of storm chasing?
I have shifted more towards photography and away from video in the past 10 years or so. Maybe I got burned out producing chase highlights videos every year from 1993 to 2009. Structure is always on my mind, but so is getting close to a tornado for the guests if it is possible and it is safe to do so. I take advantage when the opportunity presents itself. (For me, “close” is maybe 1/2 mile to one mile away, especially with the guests. If it is too close, I get nervous and am usually driving away to provide more space.)
A collection of video clips by Bill Reid.
I am a certified weather observer at two Navy Airports — Point Mugu and San Nicolas Island. I also drive to the California desert quite a bit to do photography and to get away from it all — especially Death Valley and Owens Valley areas. I have been studying the record 134F high temperature record in Death Valley on July 10, 1913, for a long time. A lot of my research is on my web site. And speaking of my web site, I spend a lot of time on chase accounts and photograph editing for the web site (stormbruiser.com)
My Masters Thesis was on temperature patterns in the Eastern Mojave Desert, so exploring the desert and understanding how its high summer temperatures work is fun for me. I have a full collection of climate data for California since the late 1800s.
Do you still chase outside of tours as well?
Not too much at all. I get more than enough chasing during the tour season, and there is little to chase here in SoCal. I can’t remember my last trip to the Plains to chase on my own outside of the tours —- though sometimes I find myself in chase mode in my own vehicle on my drives to the Plains at the start of tour season.
You have taken some amazing photos of storms over the years. What would be your 3 best tips in order to get a good storm photo?
I guess that the best 3 tips would be:
- Persevere —- it is easy to give up on chasing, or to throw in the towel on a chase prematurely. If you want great storm photographs, then you have to commit yourself to chasing severe storms, which means a lot
of driving for the period of time that you can commit to chasing, and of course a commitment to learning about storms and storm chasing and how to do it effectively and safely.
- Know your equipment —- you have to know how to use your camera equipment to its optimum abilities. A tripod and cable release are very important in many instances, as the best light is often low light when
longer exposures are required. My best shots are generally my
wide-angle shots, so a good wide-angle lens on a full-frame camera is a
- Find a friend who enjoys chasing and photography and take him or her with you on a chase trip —- it helps immeasurably on those long drives, and you will probably learn more about camera gear and good photography
Which weather events have had the most impact on you as a storm chaser?
Probably the Last Chance, CO, tornado which I witnessed and videoed back in July, 1993. I met Martin Lisius thanks to this event, and wound up working for him as the tour director of Tempest Tours. Before Last Chance, I was an unknown in the chaser community.
Did El Reno change the way you chase (in terms of safety)?
No, not really. I am conservative while chasing with the tours, and on that day I was being especially conservative. We wound up getting chased by the tornado anyway! I don’t take dumb chances whether I am with the tour or by myself.
Did a certain hit/miss affect you in which targets you choose over others?
No, I don’t think so. If I am uncertain about a couple of targets, I usually go with the closer one, or the one which will have fewer trees, or fewer chasers, or the one on the higher terrain. I have had WAY too many misses, so I just try to figure out what I did wrong so the chances of messing up are less next time.
What is the most challenging while you are on a tour?
Good question. It depends largely on the group and the weather, as you allude to. Some folks are a bit difficult, as they might have a poor sense of how storm chasing works, or they might think that we should be barreling into an HP supercell to see if there is a tornado, that sort of thing. (I don’t change my way of running the tour to try to placate someone like this.)
But by and large, the guests are wonderful and they enjoy all aspects of chasing, and a lot of them keep coming back because they like my way of chasing and they like the interesting things that we find to do on the down days. Perhaps most challenging is finding decent lodging for 15 people in eastern Montana or western ND during the evening on a Friday in late June.
I don’t like to book rooms until I have a good idea where I am going to wind up around sunset, so finding rooms late in the day can be difficult. Sometimes I bite the bullet and book during the afternoon, but then that tends to affect my chasing, and I don’t like that at all.
What do you find to be the most common misconception by tour guests who chase for the first time?
Hmmm…not really sure. This is probably a good question for the guests! We make it pretty clear to them (prior to the beginning of their tour) how a chase tour works and what to expect on a typical chase day. Most guests arrive thinking that they will have to be pretty lucky to see a good tornado, so most don’t have unrealistically high expectations. Some guests find that they can’t tolerate the long drives and the generally poor-quality food options during busy chase periods.
After almost 30 years of chasing, is there still a specific tornado/storm sight that you still long to experience?
I honestly do not contemplate about these types of things! I just get myself out there and see what there is to see. I am very fortunate that I have witnessed more spectacular atmospheric stuff than I could have ever imagined anyway! I don’t need to do any longing or imagining.
Which is your favorite chase territory?
The flat and treeless areas a couple of counties either side of U.S. 385 from northwest of Lubbock to Vega and Springfield and Burlington and Sidney are the best. And it is because it is generally flat and generally treeless! This higher terrain area is also generally better for storm photography due to less haze. It is also farther removed from the large population centers of DFW, OKC, and ICT, so chaser numbers are lower.
Which has been the best chase day with Tempest Tours since you started, if you had to pick one?
It would be very hard to beat the Capitol, MT, chase of June 28, 2018. Yes, it is the most recent. But it pretty much had everything you want in a chase, and somehow the almost nonexistent road network worked out. On top of the page (of that link) is one of my all time favorite photos as well! It is quite unique from a storm/chase perspective and no one else managed a similar shot on this storm.
Lots of other chase days come close, such as Chapman, KS on May 25, 2016, and Dodge City the day before. The Wray, CO, tornado of May 7, 2015 comes really close to topping the list.
The chase days, like Capitol and Wray, on which you wind up being one of very few other chasers to score big-time are the most rewarding.
I, Christoffer, would like to thank Bill for taking his time to share some of his adventures and thoughts about storm chasing. If you want to chase with Bill, check out Tempest Tours tour schedule.