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Dakota Storm Stalker

Posted by Annie Bennett, Co-Editor; Photography by Brian Heskin 8/28/2018 4:50:10 PM

 

North Dakota’s weather is unique, covering blizzards, wind, sun, wind, storms, and wind. For Brian Heskin, his love of watching North Dakota’s weather unfold started at a young age and has now developed quite a following through his Dakota Storm Stalker (DSS) Facebook page.

 

A Dream

Heskin, a full-time student at Minot State University, was raised on his family’s farm east of Minot and attended school in Granville. “I’ve been fascinated by severe weather since I was a little kid. I used to pretend I was chasing storms on my bike or lawn mower. My dad would drive me around chasing when I was in middle school prior to me getting my license.”

Heskin also took the annual Skywarn Storm Spotting class offered by the National Weather Service, and says he dreamed about livestreaming his adventures in storm chasing on Facebook. In 2016, he created the DSS Facebook page to share his love for his hobby with family and friends.

His dream took off in the summer of 2017, when he was chasing a storm near Killdeer. “I was able to find a great vantage point about 15 miles east of Killdeer on a fairly tall plateau. I had a great shot of the massive supercell as it moved over Killdeer and destroyed the town with baseball-sized hail and 80 mile per hour winds,” says Heskin.

He streamed the video onto his DSS Facebook page, and it quickly traveled through social media. “I gained about 10,000 new followers immediately after that storm.”

 

Real Danger

Heskin’s storm chasing has led him throughout North Dakota, eastern Montana, northern South Dakota, and western Minnesota. “I’ll usually travel far enough where I can at least get back to Minot before work,” says Heskin. “Last summer, I drove to Aberdeen, S.D., for about an hour of chasing, then made it back to Minot around 3 a.m., then I went to work at 5 a.m. I’m lucky to have a schedule where I can work early and be off usually before any storms fire.”

Chasing storms does come with some close encounters, he says, and Heskin’s craziest encounter was in Bisbee in 2016. “Storms were expected to develop in Canada and mostly remain just north of the border, and tornado chasers from around the country poured into Manitoba and northern North Dakota. Storms began to fire in the early afternoon, and I drove north of them until they passed just east of Rollette. As I was watching the storm on my radarscope app, I began to notice some extreme rotation within the storm and tornado warnings were issued shortly after,” says Heskin. “A confirmed tornado was on the ground near Bisbee, and I was only five miles away, but was able to watch the storm from a safe distance. I followed it until the storm merged with another near Devils Lake, where I found a prairie trail leading north. Within a minute, a little rope tornado came down just 200 yards in front of me. The tornado remained over rural areas and no damage was reported, however, the one in Bisbee destroyed a farm.”

Another close call for Heskin was in May 2017 in Oklahoma. “One of the biggest severe outbreaks of the year was taking place. My girlfriend and I were going after a storm that was just in its infancy. We were maybe 30 miles away at the time. By the time we reached it, it was a powerful supercell thunderstorm. A few moments later, a tornado warning was issued. The storm was referred to as a high precipitation supercell. Torrential rains accompanied it, so visibility was at a minimum. We followed along with it for a while not seeing much on radar,” he says.

“Finally, it began to show what is called ‘tornado vortex signature.’ It was apparent the tornado could be rain wrapped. This disguises the tornado in sheets of heavy rain and is very dangerous. Using our GPS, we realized we were only an eighth of a mile away from it. We couldn’t see anything, but we witnessed a few power flashes down the highway. This is a good indicator of a tornado as it rips the power lines up and around. We had to stop, but the hail shaft was beginning to go over us. This area of the storm was now producing golf-ball-size hail and strong winds. We just had to sit there and take the hail,” continues Heskin. “Luckily we parked the car at an angle where the hail stones didn’t affect us as bad as they could have. Once it cleared, we were able to see the damage from the tornado. It was in a rural area, but trees and power lines were down all over. Another town, 10 miles further, got the brunt of it. Some houses were completely destroyed.”

Heskin tracks storms using a radar app called Radarscope. The app provides high quality and professional grade imagery of the storms. “It has a GPS positioning feature that also allows me to see where I am in conjunction with the storm,” he says.

 

Intelligent Adventure

Heskin’s latest adventure is the Intelligent Application (App) for smartphones. The Intelligent App specializes in allowing certain entities the ability to send out notifications and alerts about weather. Representatives from the Intelligent company contacted Heskin asking if he would be interested in using the app. “They started doing it with landlords of big apartment complexes in larger cities,” says Heskin. “The landlords could send out alerts for various things like fires, carbon monoxide, and things of that nature. Soon other emergency services were using it.”

“It allows me to send notifications to DSS fans straight to their phone. I can even override a person’s phone and activate an emergency alert tone. I save that feature for life-threatening events,” he continues, adding anyone can download the free app to receive live updates from DSS.

 

Additional Talents

In 2011, Heskin also began practicing photography. “I suffered from addiction, and during my recovery process, I used it as a way to keep my mind busy. I can really see a difference between my photographs during that period compared to now. The years of sobriety kept building along with my experience as a photographer.”

His love for storms and the beauty they create on the North Dakota landscape shows through his photography. “I enjoy scenic and nature photos. Anything to do with the outdoors. Lightning photography is by far my favorite. It’s dangerous and often frustrating, but the results can be spectacular.”

His favorite storm shot was taken last year, during a non-severe lighting storm. “I had just set up my camera on the tripod. I saw a couple of really great bolts just a few miles south of me. I was a little mad, because I had just missed it,” says Heskin. “I got everything hooked up and just hit the shutter button and this explosion boomed right over me. A huge branch of lightning quickly engulfed the entire sky. I actually ducked for cover because it startled me so much. I checked my camera after and was pretty excited that I had been able to capture it.”

Heskin’s photography is available for purchase at dakotastormstalker.com.

Heskin has also taken up writing and is hoping to finish his first young adult novel by the end of the year. The novel is about a boy who experiences a devastating tornado, that came with no warning, and he decides to take it upon himself to ensure it never happens again. No one takes him seriously due to his age, but soon people change their minds after he predicts another major storm.

 

Hard Work Pays Off

The DSS Facebook page now has more than 46,000 likes. Heskin posts weather updates and information on potential storms, in addition to quirky memes and fun facts. “My posts for Dakota Storm Stalker have given a certain uniqueness to the page. Many people say how they enjoy the funny posts and appreciate the serious ones,” says Heskin. “When it comes to forecasting storms, I try to be serious. Once I give all the information to the fans, I can then maybe throw in something humorous later.”

Heskin says he doesn’t work out of an office, but instead just updates the Facebook page on his free time. “A lot of people picture DSS as having a fancy headquarters or some kind of high-tech setup, but most of my posts are done with my phone during class or on a break at work,” he says.

In the future, Heskin hopes to incorporate drones into his storm photography. He also hopes to broadcast live footage from a drone during an active storm chase. “I have a very loyal following on DSS. They keep me motivated.”

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