Nick Drieschman is the owner of Extreme Tornado Tours – one of the largest and most well-known tornado chasing tour companies in the business. He is not only a great storm chaser and photographer but also next up in line for my series of interviews with storm chasing tour company owners and tour guides.
Where do you live? Who misses you when you go chasing for two months?
I live in Norman, Oklahoma where our tours are based. Luckily for me, my wife is also a storm chaser and will be joining ETT as a guide this season (2019) so other than my pet snake Piper, a beautiful morph Ball Python, and my numerous pepper plants, no one would be missing me when I’m out there haha.
What do you do off-season when you are not chasing storms?
I work on ETT daily from our home office in Norman as a day job, and for fun, I grow superhot peppers and make hot sauces and powders which I share with willing guests while on tour. Additionally, I enjoy mixing a type of electronic music called Drum and Bass as I have been a DJ for 22 years. I also enjoy flyfishing for Trout, catching Northern Pike in Canada at my parent’s lake house or Largemouth Bass here in Oklahoma. I’m also really into cooking and try and make fresh food daily for my wife and I.
How did you start chasing storms? Was there one significant event/storm that started it all or is it just an interest that has always been around?
There certainly was. Back in the 80’s I was a small child and my Grandfather brought me to the living room window of his house in Solana Beach California that overlooked the Pacific Ocean and we watched in awe as twin waterspouts danced across the sea. From there I was hooked on tornadoes and storms, and my parents couldn’t get me enough reading and video material on the matter to keep me happy. I was hooked on severe weather then and have been for 30 years since.
Which single storm event has affected you most, emotionally, as a storm chaser?
For me Dodge City, 2016, was that storm, as it was the Perfect Storm. I couldnâ€™t ask for more after that and I chase with another sense of content after that.
I was at DDC and chased it by myself and had a very successful chase. In terms of pure happiness, that day was certainly up there as well, but regarding the storm that affected me the deepest, I would have to say it was Canton, Texas 2017. The tours had an excellent view of a large tornado, and we were able to let it pass just by us safely.
When we came back to that same spot the tornado had passed over leaving bad damage. I had remembered a white Jeep had been near us there before we left, and I had assumed it was one of a few chasers that had been near. Police had blocked us off from traveling north on that road further into the damage path, but later I saw pictures of that white Jeep mangled in a field a 1/4 mile away from the road. It had turned out the driver was not a chaser but was a citizen trying to get somewhere and had stopped because they were likely scared and didn’t know what to do, and they lost their life.
While I have seen the difficult part of tornadoes for years this one really hit close to home, and I think about it all the time. I just wish I had known at the time so we could have helped them, told them to follow us to safety. I made sure to sit down with the tours and really drive home the bittersweet part of tornadoes and it was a very deep learning experience for us all.
What is the history of Extreme Tornado Tours?
ETT has been around since 2008 and has been run by a few different people over the years and was associated with TVN Weather for a long time. I was asked by Reed Timmer to be a guide with ETT in 2014 which didn’t work out but I had been chasing for a while, streaming on TVN and the next year in 2015 I finally was able to become a guide and packed up all my belongings and moved to Oklahoma from California. ETT was going through some changes and with me having a business career that involved management in the past I took on a roll of leadership. The people running ETT before me had decided to move on, so I took the reigns and have been at it ever since, and we are now entering our 5th season under my direction.
Is Reed Timmer still a part of Extreme Tornado Tours?
Reed is not a part of ETT but is still a great friend of not only the tours but myself. He has been very busy with his job at Accuweather which takes up a great deal of his time. Although Reed is not involved with ETT from a business standpoint, we still do our best to meet up with him in the field and the Dominator 3 storm chasing tank when possible.
What did you change after becoming the owner of Extreme Tornado Tours?
Since my involvement with ETT, I have worked hard on legitimizing the company to the best of my abilities with everything from new vans, to new logos and website. I keep up on the social media sites and have grown the Facebook page to over 100k followers in half the time it took to acquire what it had when I arrived. I have assembled a team that we feel are some of the most prolific storm chasers around, and I have done my best to curate a client base of exceptional guests that keep coming back year after year. We are currently working on a complete redesign to the website that we are really excited about.
Why do you think your tour guests choose Extreme Tornado Tours?
First and foremost we have a knack for getting on tornadoes time after time. At risk of sounding less than humble we really statistically do see more tornadoes than any other tour company and that is owed to the abilities of our team and our process. Additionally, we are known for getting close and can do so safely because of our unique skills and our involvement in a network of prolific chasers as we are deeply rooted in the chasing community with some of the best chasers on the planet being in our circle.
We have always been interested in keeping all lines of communication and planning open with some of the best in the community and work as a team to make decisions rather than one person trying to guide the team. We are a family at ETT, a young, hungry, group of professionals that look beyond the dollar made and rely more on our combined passion for tornadoes and storm chasing. When you tour with ETT you aren’t just another seat filled, you are one of us, a storm chaser and you are very much a part of the entire process. This is why our guests keep coming back year after year.
How would you describe your fellow two tour guides?
Our core guides (we operate up to 6 guides at a time on select tours) Blake Brown and Kevin Rolfs, are my best friends. They are some of the best chasers I have ever met, and have personalities that are unmatched. One second these guys are laser focused on a tornado from a 1/4 mile away, the next they are laughing hysterically with the guests after dinner by the hotel pool wearing horsehead masks and trying to play Country music on a guitar, badly I might add haha.
Where other tour companies have a very cut and dried atmosphere we like to provide our guests with a little something extra, and that could be anything from us dressing up in a funny way to very detailed meteorology classes with our Met Kevin. With the addition of my wife as a guide in 2019, what more can I say about her other than she’s the most beautiful, funny and passionate person I have ever met and she will add a wonderful female touch to our all guys crew.
Having the name â€ťExtremeâ€ť in your company name â€” do you get closer to the tornadoes than other tour companies?
It’s a fine line we ride when talking about that. At our core safety is paramount, but when given the opportunity we will get close without a doubt. It takes a very certain set of circumstances and lies somewhere in between full-fledged up close chasing and being way back taking in the entire storm. For example on something like El Reno we would play a day like that very safe where a day like the Roggen/Keenesburg CO tornado sitting in a field lazily moving around we can get up in there a bit more.
So it isn’t really all about us getting closer, it really boils down to our under meso chasing style, something other tours don’t do as much. Given viewing storm structure from afar when there is a chance of a tornado you will always find us under the storm versus other companies that might sit back for a different view. Both are equally as safe, there just might be some guests that have an interest in seeing and photographing storm structure which is awesome, we just prefer seeing tornadoes, it’s what we do.
Have you ever been inside a tornado? Did you get hurt? Were you afraid or too pumped with adrenaline?
I have been inside of multiple tornadoes, and no I have never gotten hurt. I have also never been inside a tornado on tour, all the times we have intercepted have been on our own it is far too dangerous to attempt that kind of chasing on tour. Nearly all of the times I’ve been inside have been in a developing, rain-wrapped tornado or outside circulation with dynamics we knew weren’t strong enough to create severe situations for us.
It is a thrilling experience to say the least and no I have never been afraid, there really isn’t time for it when it’s happening. When you allow yourself to become afraid you lose valuable critical awareness and at that moment you need all the brain power you can get to quickly make decisions that pertain to your safety. Again, something I have done with skilled chasers on our own time, not something we do while on tour.
What details have you seen flying around in tornadoes?
Well, I’ve seen some crazy stuff. Notable occurrences would be housing insulation falling from the sky like rain after Canton, Texas 2017. I have seen full sized trees shoot up into the sky like a rocket, and I have seen cattle embedded in roadway guardrails on I-44 in near Bridge Creek Oklahoma.
Probably my craziest experience was standing in the middle of a (desolate) road and looking straight up to see a funnel form and watching in disbelief as a corrugated metal shed just exploded into thin air about 50 yards away from me near Sanger, Texas 2015 with pieces being teleported directly straight up. I’ll never forget the sound of corrugated metal being ripped to shreds by a tornado. One of the most interesting things tornadoes produce is the smell. They leave behind a very distinct scent of freshly uprooted earth, broken tree limbs, and natural gas. It is a very unique odor and every time I smell it, it brings up a flight or fight response. It seems to be ingrained deeply within us that our minds are telling us that something very bad is or has been happening.
What precautions do you do to keep your tour guests safe?
We have rigorous safety meetings that start with our initial tour orientation. We use a color-coded system for when the guests are outside of the vans that tells them where they should stay in relation to the vans and guides. For example, green might mean feel free to take your time and set up a shot, while red means stay right next to the van doors to immediately enter and strap in while orange is in-between.
We spend about a half hour going over safety topics and the guests get a brochure covering safety topics. This could be anything from our policy of always staying on the right side of the vans and never crossing roads to not touching metal fences and always keeping an eye out for snakes, bugs etc. As tour director, we have guide meetings that keep our team up to date with safety policies and refreshes on how we interact with the guests in that regard.
Both myself and my wife are Red Cross trained in first aid/CPR and each van carries its own well-stocked first aid kit. I could go on for a long time about our safety practices, they are our first priority.
Do tour guest often worry about safety on (or prior to) tours, or is it the other way around?
In my now five years of doing this, I have never had a guest tell me they felt afraid at any point. I have had guests say they might have some fears before we chase, but one of the most common things I hear from guests is how safe they felt after chasing with us when they thought they would feel the opposite.
This doesn’t surprise me, however, because it starts with us and our communication while on tour. Once the guests realize what we are actually doing and how our chasing works, they begin to understand that is possible to track storms and tornadoes with safety.
News media and TV/Cinema always paints such a grim picture of chasing with the most popular videos being those caught in the path of tornadoes etc getting the most news coverage. When guests realize that we are able to safely tuck into an area and hear us constantly talking about our safety options for bail routes etc they understand that we are on top of our game. End of the day us guides all have family and people that love us, so even though the guests are our first priority none of us want to ever put the tours in a situation of vulnerability.
A common question among tour guests is: When should I go? What do you like/dislike about each of the months April, May, and June? If you want you can answer: Which 7 days would you pick to chase?
The most common question we get certainly pertains to what tour should they take or what time should they go. Through the years we have had our most notable experiences be in early April, smack middle of May and near the end of June and everywhere in between so it’s not really about a certain month for us although there are some slight differences.
As the season progresses so does the areas of chasing, and we like to say that if a guest is looking for more “traditional” chasing our April and early to mid-May tours are great for the southern plains stuff. As the season progresses we move further north and storms begin to get a little more isolated with much prettier terrain like in Nebraska, Wyoming etc.
Most people are concerned with the strongest likelihood of seeing a tornado of course, and when answering that question we like to direct them to our longer tours for the sheer amount of time spent out there. All in all at the end of the day any of our tours have the possibility to be the best, that’s why we like to offer fewer tours than most companies and centralize them into the prime time of the season.
Your Facebook page have over 100.000 followers (!). What do you share on the page to gain and entertain that kind of massive audience?
We really enjoy having a large following on our social media outlets and try and be as organic as possible with our posts, sticking to what we are about which is tornadoes and severe weather. We have amassed quite the collection of footage our own chases and severe weather events and I think our followers really enjoy that. An added bonus is storm-related humor, we like to keep things fun and light here at ETT.
You are into still photography, what are your 3 best advices to get a good photo?
Great question and one I love to answer.
1- Don’t worry so much about the quality of your gear but rather your subject composition, the editing process, and settings.
2- Always put more money into your glass (lens) than your camera body in most situations. A high quality, fast wide angle on a basic full frame will beat any high-quality camera body with sub-par glass.
3- Shoot RAW and with manual settings. This is the fundamentals to a quality photo, and learn how to edit and shoot this way on YouTube or even better, a local photography class. Keep your edits light and as true to the scene as when you saw it with your own eyes, and never worry about taking too many pics.
Which is your favorite photo to this date?
You would think it’s a tornado photo and there are many, but my favorite was taken near Abilene Texas with the tours in 2015 and shows an incredible lightning strike from close range and the tours looking up at it. We had been seeing lightning from a good distance and I had a few great photos but decided to drop my setting to a level that would only properly capture a very close bolt even though it was highly likely it wouldn’t happen. It did and this is the result. To this day I keep trying to take a photo like this again but haven’t been able to pull it off. Needless to say directly after this we loaded all the guests into the vans for safety.
What is your favorite place to go on a down day?
We have an awesome relationship with The National Weather Museum here in Norman as one of our partners. Here you can see Tim Samaras’s amazing lightning camera as seen in National Geographic as well as a vehicle destroyed in the Moore, Oklahoma 2013 tornado.
We also have a wonderful thing going with our friend Linda from the Twister Museum in Wakita, Oklahoma where the guests can purchase probes from the film, tour the town where “Twister” was made and meet Linda herself who was an extra in the film and watch her presentation about the film.
We are also really big on amazing food spots famous for being on TV etc. We like to hit regional specialty places like great BBQ in Texas to the best burgers ever at Sid’s in El Reno.
What do you do when you have a thunderstorm approaching back home?
I’m a porch and beer kind of guy. I usually leave the camera in its bag. We work so hard out there chasing, documenting and working with storms that sometimes it’s nice to just get back to your roots and let the storm roll over you like you were a kid again, with no worries of capturing anything other than some great memories đź™‚