Columbus, Forest Lake and the surrounding area were hit in the early morning of July 12 with a strong thunderstorm that knocked out power in many areas and downed many trees. After the storm, the National Weather Service announced that an unanticipated, fast-forming EF1 tornado had formed in the area (EF1 tornadoes have wind speeds between 86 and 110 mph). The Forest Lake Fire Department, which serves both Forest Lake and Columbus, was out on a steady stream of calls as damage piled up and trees fell on houses, cars and power lines, but as of July 13, said Fire Chief Alan Newman, no injuries had been reported, and firefighters worked well with law enforcement agencies to prioritize safety. The city of Forest Lake announced additional hours for its compost site after the storm.
In regard to the lack of a storm warning siren before or during the July 12 weather event, Forest Lake City Council Member Mara Bain took to Facebook to address community concerns. She wrote that the tornado sirens in Forest Lake are activated by Washington County when the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, when the NWS indicates sustained winds of 70-plus mph, or when a trained spotter calls in a sighting.
“My very amateur meteorological understanding is that this storm escalated in magnitude quickly when two cells converged near Forest Lake,” her post read. “Radar did not indicate a tornado, which is why a tornado warning was not given and winds were not expected to be so high. Unfortunately, this is a prime reminder that while best efforts are made to provide adequate public warning of danger, these measures are imperfect.”
Todd Krause, a Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Chanhassen, was in Forest Lake July 13 to conduct a series of damage surveys.
“We look for three things in order to determine when to issue a tornado warning,” he said. “We rely on weather spotter reports, what the radar shows and how convincing that might be, and also whether or not the winds and the temperatures in the lowest 5,000 feet of the atmosphere are conducive to producing a tornado event. Any one of those three can prompt us to issue a warning, but with the Forest Lake storm, none of them looked apparent to us.”