Widespread damage, no fatalities reported in strong storm system that moved over Fallon County, Mont. last weekend.
By SHERRY VOGEL | For The Pioneer
It had already proven to be a busy weekend for Baker, Mont. — the city was host to the 2016 Montana High School Rodeo Finals and hundreds of people had flocked to the area for the excitement.
But instead of cleaning up after a rodeo, the community had to sort through the havoc of a tornado that ripped across the area Saturday evening.
Baker was hit by an EF-3 tornado around 6:30 p.m. June 11, injuring seven residents and demolishing at least two houses, damaging up to 50 more homes.
The National Weather Service issued tornado alerts earlier Saturday that indicated severe thunderstorms containing large hail, damaging winds, and a few tornados would be possible over portions of the central and northern high plains.
Shortly before the tornado touched down, the Baker Little League was playing softball on the field at the south end of the Baker Lake. At the neighboring country club, 50 golfers were unwinding after a golf tournament. The local fairgrounds, which is also in close proximity to where the tornado touched down, was hosting the rodeo finals. Approximately 900 people from across the state were seated under an outdoor, covered grandstand enjoying the evening rodeo performances only a few minutes before the tornado struck.
Tornado hits Baker neighborhood
An ominous, dark cloud was spotted hovering over a five-mile radius southeast of Baker. According to the National Weather Service, the inter-perimeters of the massive cloud churned at 140 to 150 mph as it labored to funnel out.
While county disaster sirens wailed alert, many local residents stood by, snapping pictures with their cell phones or recording video footage.
The cloud quickly formed a tornado, which the National Weather Service would later label an EF-3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale that measures the strength of tornadic activity.
The destructive tail moved downward, ultimately destroying an entire east side neighborhood in Baker.
Seven city residents were injured, two homes were flattened and many other structures sustained excessive damage, according to responders at the scene.
Thirty to 50 homes in total were affected, leaving at least 10 people displaced. Some found refuge in local motels in the storm’s aftermath while many stayed with family or friends.
Help arrives at scene of devastation
The Baker city blocks located between South Fifth Street east and South Tenth Street east, intersected by Texas Avenue, were hit hardest and sustained the most damage.
Piles of rubble stood in place of two homes, while about 15 others were missing roofs, windows or outbuildings. Personal property, household items and chunks of glass were strewn across the landscape. Pieces of shredded insulation hanging from naked trusses danced eerily in the wind. Snarled curtains flapped wildly in unison as they struggled to break free from shattered windows. Many broken and leaning power poles left live wires coiled on the ground. Single tree trunks stood alone and barren, resembling matchsticks, as they had been striped of all branches and leaves.
Multiple emergency response teams worked at the scene as they systematically moved between homes in search of survivors. Neighbors and response teams were frantically trying to take a head count to help discover any missing individuals.
Paramedics, with the aid of volunteers, placed the wounded on gurneys to be evacuated to the Fallon Medical Complex. Personnel of Montana-Dakota Utilities joined the Baker Fire Department to locate and turn off gas lines, while others disabled downed electrical wires.
Law enforcement issued a call to all surrounding area first response teams for mutual assistance.
Over 70 personnel arrived at the scene from the surrounding tri-state area, including from the communities of Plevna, Ekalaka, and Wibaux, Mont., Ludlow, S.D, Marmarth, Rhame, Bowman and Beach.
Soon after the first touch down, local sirens began to sound a second alarm, warning the public of two more impending tornados. Many took shelter in basements, bathrooms or public fallout shelters. The city was on high alert far into the night. While those additional tornadoes never reached the ground, it was still a harried night for many. The majority of the city remained without power until 2 a.m. the next day.
The Fallon County Library basement was set up as an emergency operations center that filtered all incoming information.
The response was impressive as the city, county, American Red Cross, public volunteers and neighbors jumped in to lend a helping hand. Many individuals came together to meet the needs of the moment.
The Plevna Fire Department and the Custer County Sheriff’s Department stayed on an additional two days to assist with continued security and to begin the massive cleanup.
Bryce Martin, Bowman County Pioneer editor, contributed to this report. Sherry Vogel is staff writer at The Fallon County Times, the Pioneer’s sister publication in Baker, Mont.