Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

A pair of hail storms Saturday afternoon severely damaged crops in Baker and North Powder valleys and left a couple in southern Baker County stranded overnight when their mile-long driveway was inundated.

The separate storms, which also spawned dozens of lightning strikes, torrential rains and powerful wind gusts, both hit around mid-afternoon.

One of the storms prompted the National Weather Service in Boise to warn of a possible tornado, although that warning was rescinded relatively quickly and no tornado was reported.

The warning did, though, give Baker County's Consolidated Dispatch Center a chance to test its reverse 9-1-1 system, which places phone calls to every landline in the county.

The system also calls cell phones or sends text messages to customers who have asked for the service.

One storm passed over Phillips Reservoir and Baker City before sweeping across fields of wheat, potatoes and alfalfa in Baker Valley.

Although mainly rain fell in Baker City, the storm pummeled areas to the west and north of town with hail.

"There's a lot of hail damage," said Brent Thompson, who farms between Haines and North Powder.

"This is the hardest we've been hit since we started here eight years ago."

Thompson said his potatoes suffered some damage, although as of Sunday evening he hadn't assessed the extent of the loss.

Although he said there's never a good time to have hail hit potatoes, Saturday's storm was especially vexing because "the potatoes were just starting to get going."

"Hail can kill the leaf, or hurt and vine and the potatoes won't grow as well," Thompson said.

"It was a really scary storm," said Jan Kerns, who with her husband, Tim, farms in Baker Valley.

"There was damage to potato, wheat and alfalfa fields mostly at the north end of Baker County," said Trent Luschen, Executive Director of Baker County's Farm Service Agency (FSA).

"Most of the damage was found west of the freeway and north of Haines toward North Powder," he said. "Hail came in shredding up the leaves of alfalfa and potatoes. With the wheat I'm not too sure, but some fields were hit pretty hard."

As of 8:30 today, Luschen wasn't aware of any possible disaster declarations, though he will meet on Thursday morning with a joint team including Mark Bennett, Baker County's Planning Director, and the OSU Extension Office, to discuss the damages and their response.

Bennett said that when he drove through Unity on Saturday after the storm, he saw water flowing through it like a river. Then, one of his neighbors told him that hail had come down like a sheet.

"The hail ranged in size from peas to golf balls," Bennett said. "It was an interesting storm, localized in the north and south of the county. For some the hills were white, and, for others, nothing. It just depended where you were."

One place directly in the path of the southerly of the two storms is Suzan and Keith Jones' Devils Canyon Ranch, about six miles east of Bridgeport.

The storm there wrought havoc at about the same time hail was bombarding Baker Valley.

"Keith was in the field trying to get our baled hay stacked when I saw the storm coming," Suzan Jones said Sunday evening. "I went to get him and about then the hail hit. Driving back up to the house was kind of dicey - everything was just washing out from under us."

When the storm had passed, about an hour later, the Jones' one-mile driveway leading to the county road to Mormon Basin was impassable.

Every draw - all of them dry this time of year - ferried an icy, glutinous slurry of mud and hail across the driveway, Suzan said.

Hail slid off the metal roof of the couple's home and formed a drift three feet deep, she said.

Keith Jones used his bulldozer to repair the driveway on Sunday.

"It was like plowing dirty Jell-O," Suzan said. "He'd push it away and it would just ooze back around him."

Hail was so deep in places that patches of it remained well into Sunday, even though temperatures rose to around 80 degrees.

Most of the hailstones were about the size of mothballs, Suzan said, although she found some about the diameter of a quarter.

Although the couple's cars were unscathed, hail wrecked several plastic pieces, including vents and the air-conditioning unit on the roof of their fifth-wheel travel trailer.

Suzan Jones said flash floods damaged most of their irrigation ditches, one of which breached, allowing mud and boulders to pour onto part of an alfalfa field.

The Joneses grow alfalfa as winter feed for their herd of about 70 cow-calf pairs.

Although probably not the biggest monetary loss to the storm, the mess that, as Suzan puts it, "really torqued her," was what the storm did to her garden.

"The garden is gone," she said.

Hail turned her cabbage "into cole slaw," she said, and toppled her tomato plants that were heavy with budding green fruit.