Up in the clouds: Meet Big Timber's local weather spotter

W ind blows through the streets of Big Timber, and rain freckles the sidewalk. A boom and crash of thunder shakes the windows of the downtown shops and folks think twice about venturing outside when the sky lights up with lightning.

And Al First is watching the clouds. 

First, a local weather spotter, has been tracking the clouds of Big Timber for 10 years. 

“I’m not a forecaster. I can forecast, but I’m not a forecaster,” he clarifies. 

He’s a trained observer. 

First began training in 1961 when he was 19 and in the Army weather corps. For three months, eight hours a day and five days a week, First studied the weather in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. 

After training, he was stationed in Alaska at Fort Greeley for 27 months, one of the most difficult places to predict weather, he said. 

First spent a large portion of his stationed time participating in national geological surveys about permafrost and flying high above the snow and ice-blanketed tundra in a helicopter “because nobody would like to get in a chopper up there in Alaska.”

Back in the ‘60s, the permafrost was starting to melt, and First tracked the progression from afar ever since. 

“The permafrost in Alaska now is dangerously melting. All the natural gas that was collected underneath the earth is being released because of the melting,” he said, adding that the industrial revolution and amount of carbon dioxide humans are still polluting the air with isn’t doing us any good. 

“If you increase the carbon dioxide in the air, the trees are happier and get greener. But the only outcome is that we start getting more rain and more moisture, and we get floods,” he said. “Instead of getting one or two inches per year, we might get 15 inches or so.”

First has had first-hand experience with crazy weather phenomenon, from the 2011 storm in Big Timber to getting out of the way of a Category 1 tornado in Kentucky some years ago. 

With winds up to 112 mph, First said the twister uprooted a row of his honey locust trees and tore half the barn roof off as it made its way through his tobacco farm in Mercer County, Kentucky. 

First said he hopped in his truck and “backed that baby up as fast as it would go” down a hill and out of the way of the dangerous winds. 

Since his time in the army, First has kept up to date with weather and has more time to enjoy it since retiring and moving to Big Timber. But even though First has been observing the weather for more than 50 years, he said he still won’t be able to learn everything. 

“There’s so much terminology out there anymore that even a college student has trouble if he doesn’t have reference books to go to,” First said. 

His passion for weather started at a very young age. His grandmother feared thunderstorms.

“You kids get in here,” his grandma would say. First said she would sit in a corner and shake, which led him to ask why he felt afraid of the storms too. From there, it was earth science classes that satisfied his hunger for learning about weather throughout his time in school. 

First even has a favorite cloud: the altocumulus lenticularis, a stack of lens-shaped clouds which form from layers of dry and wet air that keep the clouds from joining together. 

First is always equipped with proper weather measuring devices, whether he is watching from the view of his armchair in the living room or on the road. He has a weather transmitter in his backyard, which sends data to his computer, and a few rain gauges to measure the amount of precipitation in a day. 

“This is the most reliable instrument made,” he said as he held his 12 inch rain gauge. 

Every morning he measures the amount of rainfall and sends his findings to the National Weather Service.

“They (National Weather Service) will call me every once in a while. They’ll ask me, ‘are you gonna do anything today?’ and I’ll say ‘yeah, I’m gonna go out and chase this storm on my radar,’” First said. 

First carries a lightning detector with him on his storm chases and often checks the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration site for weather updates around the globe.

“When you see my little red or white car out there, you know I’m out watching,” he said.

Story and photo by Olivia Keith / Pioneer Staff Writer