While tornadoes and hurricanes may ravage some parts of the country on a routine basis, Kern County is not the first place you think of for severe weather. But we have had our moments. So I compiled a top 10 list of the most extreme weather events in the county of Kern. I investigate weather events you remember, and weather that may have occurred before your time.
It was Jan. 21, 2010. A huge Pacific storm moved right over our region producing the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded, 28.95 inches at Meadows Field. This storm also created 95 mph winds a few days earlier killing one man in Pine Mountain Club when falling trees crashed into his home. It makes No. 10 on the list.
Perhaps the most memorable extreme winter weather event for Bakersfield was a delight for many. 4-6 inches of snow fell in the south valley on Jan. 25, 1999. People still talk about it today. The weather situation involved a low pressure system over Kern County with peculiar dynamics which brought only a cold rain to Fresno, but a winter wonderland around Bakersfield. My No. 9 ranks No. 1 for many of you, firmly etched into your memory.
On the flip side, No. 8 has to go to the year 1908, that few, if any, remember. This was the most extreme year temperature-wise in Bakersfield. On Jan. 3, the mercury dropped to only 12 degrees, our all-time low. But remarkably, on July 28 of that same year the temperature soared to 118 degrees, our all-time record high. It’s rare that a city’s extreme high and low readings occur in the same year. I know of no other location in the country where this is the case. During that hot July, highs of 110 or above were recorded a string of 15 consecutive days.
Coming in at No. 7 another hot year, much more recently. Heat Wave No. 3 in July 2006, only five years ago, took a tremendous toll in Kern County and much of California. 46 heat related fatalities were reported in the south valley, with more than 350 across the state. Bakersfield hit 112 degrees during a 12-day period. It caused livestock losses in the thousands, cost 750,000 chickens and turkeys and brought about an all-time daily power consumption record in California of more than 50,000 megawatts.
No. 6 of the biggest weather events was a winter storm just before Groundhog Day of 1979. In addition to closing the Grapevine and Tehachapi pass for a day with more than a foot of snow, this storm dumped 9 inches on Ridgecrest with 6 inches in Mojave and Edwards AFB. It paralyzed Southern California with snow in Palm Springs and Malibu. Big Bear Lake received 56 inches from this one storm, an all-time record.
No. 5 on the list was a thick Tule fog episode on Saturday November 14th, 1998. The entire south valley was socked in with an unusually early and dense fog. Fortunately, it wasn’t a business day and no fog delays were called for schools. But numerous accidents occurred throughout the late morning and afternoon. Up the road in Tulare County, a 74-vehicle pile-up resulted in 51 injuries and two fatalities.
The fourth biggest weather occurrence took place on Sept. 30, 1932. A storm of tropical origin caused extreme flash flooding in the Tehachapi Mountains, washing a train right off the tracks between Woodford Station and Tehachapi, claiming 15 lives. This was big news at the time- reported around the country.
The third most significant storm occurred less than a year ago. December 2010 turned out to be the wettest month for Bakersfield since records began in 1889. 5.82 inches fell officially, but many areas received much more leading to extensive flooding throughout the county. Highway 178 through the Kern Canyon was closed for two weeks. Evacuations were necessary in McFarland. Sand bags were laid around parts of Arvin and Lamont as Caliente Creek rose, although it never reached levels of the February 1978 flood. All this, ironically, was during a La Nina winter, typically dry.
Also in the recent past, I have listed as number 2 on my inventory of top weather the Hard Freeze of January 2007. This was a cold snap to remember. Bakersfield had 14 consecutive days of freezing low temperatures, the coldest dropping to 23 degrees. That same day in Lancaster, they fell to only 3 degrees above zero, their record. Three-fourths of the nation’s citrus was destroyed resulting in damage assessments in excess of one billion dollars. The governor requested federal disaster assistance due to No. 2 on the list.
There have been some big dust storms in Kern County in late autumn. Some have suddenly caused zero visibility for drivers, such as on Nov. 29, 1991 when 14 people were killed in a 104-vehicle pile-up on Interstate 5. But the granddaddy of them all, and my Kern County number 1 weather event of all time is the Great Bakersfield Duster, a super dust storm that affected areas of Arvin up to Bakersfield on Dec. 20, 1977. Wind gusts from the southeast were estimated up to 192 mph, sandblasting paint off cars- burying cows with sand, and turning the day to total darkness with suffocating dust. The dust cloud rose to 10,000 feet. Old timers said it was like the dust bowl days of the 1930s. Damage to infrastructure, property, power transmission, agriculture and wildlife was extensive. A total of 25 million metric tons of soil and bedrock were removed. Valley fever spores were carried to distance parts of the state. 5 people lost their lives due to auto accidents.
One driver pulled off the road and when his windshield blew out he left the car to find shelter. He was found three days later suffering from hypothermia and skin burns due to wind. This dust storm will always be remembered by those who call Kern County their home as the biggest weather event ever.