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Baker tornado matches Montana’s strongest ever

This photo, submitted by Lori Hall, an off-duty 911 dispatcher in Baker, Mont., shows a home destroyed by a tornado that swept through part of the southeast Montana town on Saturday night. (Submitted Photo by Lori Hall)

BAKER, Montana -- The National Weather Service rated the tornado that ripped through Baker on Saturday as an EF-3 in a preliminary storm survey -- matching the strongest recorded in Montana history.

At about 6:55 p.m., the tornado touched down on Baker Lake and traveled northeast into a subdivision. The EF-3 force winds occurred in a one block area, the NWS survey said.

The tornado lasted about 10 minutes and traveled about half a mile. It destroyed at least six homes and damaged more than 50. The storm left several people injured, but no deaths were reported.

Officials have not placed an exact monetary value on the damage in Baker, a southwest Montana city of about 1,900 people about 15 miles from the North Dakota border and 100 miles southwest of Dickinson,  but early estimates are more than $1 million. That figure doesn't take into account future cleanup efforts of Baker Lake, said Chuck Lee, coordinator of Fallon County Disaster and Emergency Services.

The storm whipped debris like ATVs, freezers and the gazebo from a nearby park into the lake. One witness also reported seeing a couple cows thrown into the water. The possibility of contamination requires the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and United States Environmental Protection Agency's involvement during the cleanup process. Baker Lake is closed to boating, fishing and swimming pending cleanup and testing for contaminants, Lee said.

Montanans have experienced EF-3 tornadoes four times since record keeping began in 1950. They include Wibaux County in 1952, Choteau County in 1988, Sheridan County in 2010 and Carter County in 2014. One person died in Wibaux County and the Sheridan County storm resulted in two deaths, said Tom Frieders, NWS Billings meteorologist.

Frieders said the Enhanced Fujita tornado intensity scale ranges from EF-0 to EF-5. Meteorologists estimate wind speeds using the twister’s destruction and the wind speed correlates to an EF rating. An EF-3 like the Baker tornado carries wind speeds from 135 to 165 mph.

Storms in the EF-3 category decimate homes and strip trees down to stumps. Frieders said higher category tornadoes have never been recorded in Montana and represent less than 5 percent of those reported nationally. They typically occur in the Great Plains and Midwest.

“When you’re talking about EF-4s, your well-constructed houses are completely leveled and cars can be thrown around like missiles in the air,” he said.

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