Mini-tornado leaves fire station roofless

Firefighters clean up the rooftop of Fire Station 70 on Friday. A windstorm called a microburst tore through Carbon Canyon two days before, leaving the station without most of its roof. Cortney Litwin / TMT

Firefighters in the station at the time say the winds were violent and ferocious, bending the tops of Sycamore trees to the ground and flattening bushes.

By Judy-Anne Goldman/Special to The Malibu Times

The roof of Fire Station 70 was torn off by a powerful burst of wind that swept through Carbon Canyon on the afternoon of July 16.

“There was a huge bang, all the kitchen cabinets and the dishwasher popped open,” Firefighter Andy Gosser said. “We thought the roof had collapsed, but it was just the sound of the air pressure.”

The weather event, which is highly unusual for Southern California, lasted about five minutes and left Fire Station 70 without most of its roof.

The condition was considered a microburst, explained Dr. David Green, a chemistry and astronomy professor at Pepperdine University.

“A microburst happens under the same kind of conditions as a tornado-two different temperatures of air collide,” Green said.

As opposed to a tornado’s wider scope of destruction and larger air masses, a microburst is very localized. It creates a “microclimate” from two small air masses.

Green noted that wind speeds during a microburst reach 70 to 100 miles per hour.

Gosser and Fire Captain Bob Goldman were the sole witnesses to the event at the station.

“We were outside when it started,” Gosser recounted. “Black, puffy, tropical clouds moved in very quickly. There was thunder and we were afraid of lightning, which can easily cause brush fires.

“It had been dry, but it got humid immediately and the temperature changed to be radically cooler. We went inside and the wind picked up-there hadn’t been any wind before. We were watching everything swirling in the parking lot. It was like that for about five minutes.”

Gosser said the condition turned violent suddenly. He and Goldman saw tall Sycamores bend so that the tops of the trees touched the ground. The wind was so ferocious that the shrubs outside the firehouse were flattened.

“The windows started bowing in and out, so we ran into the engine room in case they burst,” Gosser recalled.

Then pieces of roof began hitting the cars in the parking lot.

“I had a brand new truck, so I ran out to move it,” Gosser said.

Though the wind was so rough and full of dust and debris that he could barely open his eyes, Gosser was able to move his truck out of the way before larger chunks of roof material fell onto the remaining cars.

“My truck didn’t have a scratch on it.”

Another phenomenon associated with microbursts is water spouting.

“It can drag water up in the air hundreds of feet,” Green said.

The professor had occasion to witness a waterspout firsthand while scuba diving.

“We saw this water going up in the air and thought, ‘That’s not supposed to be happening!’ It was simultaneously fascinating and terrifying.”

Gosser said that apparently the Malibu microburst picked up water from the adjacent creek bed and unloaded it over the station.

“We found that the cars had been showered with muddy water,” he said.

Before dissipating, the tornado traveled up the uninhabited side of the canyon. There were no reports of other damage.

“It was weird. The tornado just stalled here, then zipped up the hill where there are no houses,” Gosser said. “It was very unusual. I’m grateful that no one was hurt, my truck wasn’t damaged, and no power lines came down.”

The fire station is protected by a heavy tarp until the roof can be replaced in the near future.

“Since working at this station I’ve seen flash floods come down the creek with mud slides, brush fires and now I’ve witnessed a tornado. I thought I’d have to go to Oklahoma to see that!” Gosser said. “It was a one in a million occurrence.”