The Central Valley's Curse: Killer Tule Fog of Wintertime

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When it blows in across the seashore, the mood becomes melancholy. Workers lower their heads and reach for woolen mufflers, lighthouses sound hoarse bellows from their klaxons.

But when the fog rises up from the ground, wet and cold and dripping thick--and most of all, stubborn--in the Central Valley, it tests the will, it tests the eyes. It tests one's control of the machine he is driving. The mood is heavy with anxiety. And nearly every year people die.

In the Central Valley, they call it Tule fog. It is as reliable an indicator of winter as the snows of New England. And sometimes as severe.

It is a fog that lowers spirits and shortens the schedules of schools. But most of all, it it throws a frightening blanket on transportation.

A drive across town becomes a anxious test of skill. An airline reservation becomes a maddening ordeal. Highways become nightmares of screeching tires and colliding steel. And sometimes, such as happened Tuesday, even the trains become prey in the fog.

Fog was a factor in a 69-vehicle accident near Tracy early Tuesday morning. Fifty-five vehicles were involved in a series of 14 separate injury accidents in Merced County the same day, and 14 cars plowed together near Manteca. In one accident, a small toxic cloud mixed with the fog when a swimming pool service truck was rear-ended, rupturing containers of chlorine and acid.

"This time of year makes me wonder why I do this," said Michale San Clemente, a flower grower from Jamestown in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Twice a week, he delivers his roses to the San Joaquin Valley, logging 350 miles per trip. On Tuesday, he set out in the thick gloom at 3 a.m. "This big gravel truck pulled out in front of me. . . . I (hit the brakes and) went completely sideways. I'm dreading my delivery days."

"It would be OK if everyone would slow down, but of course they don't," said Bruce Eldridge, a professor at UC Davis, who recalled near-accidents when driving in the fog. On Tuesday, he had the misfortune of switching and taking the train on a trip south. His was the train that crashed.

"I still feel the most dangerous place to be is behind the steering wheel," he said.

Even non-drivers dread these foggy days. "It's cold, I'll tell you that. I hate it. I hate it. It cuts through to your bones," said Telly Jackson, 27, a homeless person at the Reyes Senior Park in Stockton.

Anyone who has lived through a winter in the Central Valley knows of the fog and has stories to tell. Anyone who has not may find the phenomenon hard to understand.

Local authorities advise motorists to stop at intersections, roll down their windows, and listen in both directions before proceeding.

Days can stretch into weeks without a glimpse of the sun. Never mind the publicity hounds who go into caves for long periods to study the effects of darkness on the human psyche. Just send them to the Central Valley during a fog spell.

Visibility can approach zero in what the California Highway Patrol calls "critical" Tule fog. That can means you see no farther than your hood ornament. News reporters tell of threading through two highway pileups just to get to the wreck they are assigned to cover. These are not exaggerations.

Tule fog season runs from November to March, with December and January the killer months. National Weather Service meteorologist Lyle Hammer in Fresno said that long-term weather records in the Central Valley show that dense fog can be expected nearly 40 days a year--6.2 days in every November, 12.3 days in December, 11.6 in January, 6.3 in February and 1.8 in March. These are averages. Some tell of periods of more than 50 days straight without sunshine.

The Highway Patrol could not provide regional accident statistics. But statewide highway fatalities mirror the Central Valley fog patterns. In 1988, eight people died in fog-related automobile accidents, 15 in November, 20 in December, 11 in January and one each in February and March, according to the CHP.

CHP spokesman Ten Eichman, described by headquarters at the patrol's "Mr. Fog," said the winter decrease in visibility ranks right behind alcohol as the motorists' biggest nemesis.

Jim Boren, a long-time reporter for the Fresno Bee, recounts what it is like to drive long-distance through dense fog. His trip was from San Francisco to Fresno earlier this week:

"It was about 2 a.m. when I got into the valley. I couldn't go any faster than 20, sometimes slower. You couldn't see more than three white lines in front. I had my head out the window sometimes. It was unnerving--you could only cross your fingers that somebody wouldn't come racing up and hit you from behind. And then you had to strain to see ahead. Sometimes the patches of fog were so thick you would drive into them and just hope there was nothing ahead to hit.

"My daughter slept the whole way. Her father was terrified."

Ground fog is created when weather conditions in the Central Valley are stable, the air moist and still. The ground cools at night and chills the adjacent air. Moisture condenses and a ground-hugging cloud forms. As long as there is no wind to disperse the cloud, the process continues and the fog grows thicker and denser each day. A typical pattern is to see a few days of fog only in the mornings or late nights. Then the fog progressively thickens. The sun fades to only a glow. Finally, all that is left is a gloomy, gray soup.

Tule fog is named for the cattail-like tules that grew in Tule Lake, which once covered the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley and created the moisture which fueled the fog.

As airline travelers know, airports throughout the Central Valley struggle with the fog--notably Sacramento, Stockon, Fresno and Bakersfield. At Sacramento, 51 of 140 flights were canceled Tuesday because of fog. Among them was the Los Angeles-to-Sacramento flight of Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, who was headed to the Capitol for an important news conference where he was named a special prosecutor in the growing Lincoln Savings & Loan scandal.

Airport spokeswoman Laura Gipson said the number of cancellations was unusually high. On a normal December day, only 20 to 25 flights would be canceled.

The Stockton Municipal Airport was closed all day. From the control tower, a spokesman shrugged, "Can't see 100 yards."

Then there is Eli Setencich, a columnist for the Fresno Bee. Each season at this time his eyes mist up and he swears it is not from the fog. "I like it. It's the only thing that's different here." he said. Then he read from a column on the subject: "To hear the experts, you'd think the black plague is coming. . . . If anything, fog sharpens the vision--you can see that telephone pole in your path or the red tail light on the truck you did not realize you were following. Nothing can heighten awareness like a good, thick fog."

Times staff writers Dan Morain and Kevin Roderick in Stockton contributed to this story.

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