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Ojai Tower in Eye of Storm on 2 Fronts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To a feisty contingent of Ojai residents, the 98-foot weather tower atop Sulphur Mountain is the Black Orb, a radiation-emitting hazard that threatens the health of the public and must be removed.

But to meteorologists in the National Weather Service’s Oxnard bureau, the Doppler Weather Radar antenna is the newest, most sophisticated, storm-tracking technology they have to predict disaster and protect lives and property.

Expecting torrential rains and flooding in Ventura County on Monday night, meteorologists and other experts at the National Weather Service spent the day tracing the possible path of the county’s latest storm and trying to determine its impact, with the help of the radar tower and other high-tech equipment.

“This last week of record-breaking weather has given us the opportunity to use the Doppler and sort of show it off,” meteorologist Tim McClung said. “I think everyone will be pleased when they get flood warnings three to 12 hours in advance.”

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Unlike other radars, the Doppler radar is designed specifically to track storms and wind, and provides more accurate information, McClung said.

“It’s like getting the right surgeon for an operation,” he said.

The National Weather Service was able to warn county residents three hours before last week’s storms, and in a news release it credited the radar with reducing flood damage and saving lives.

Members of Ojai’s Citizens Against Radiation Exposure say they have never questioned the ability of the radar to forecast the weather. The adverse long-term effects it may have on nearby families has always been the issue, said Dale Givner, an attorney representing the residents.

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“We don’t have the opinion that it is ineffective,” said Givner, who lives near the tower. “But they don’t know that it doesn’t create a health hazard. It’s too new, and all of Ventura County is the guinea pig.”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said last year that not enough tests have been done on the system to definitively conclude that it is safe.

The tower is one of about 160 new Doppler systems in operation or being built by the U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees the National Weather Service, as part of a massive upgrading of weather-tracking equipment.

McClung stressed that the Doppler is safe.

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“We’ve done all kinds of tests on the radar,” he said. “It’s safer to stand near that radar than to talk on your cel phone.”

Nevertheless, the battle goes on, and a lawsuit filed by Givner and other Ojai residents to have the tower scrapped is pending before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

On Monday at the National Weather Service’s command center in Oxnard, meteorologists pored over satellite pictures, monitored automatic rain gauges and analyzed computer simulations.

They used the Doppler tower as well as more conventional radar--still useful despite being up to 35 years old.

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And they relied on more traditional sources of information--the observations of some plain old folks--to determine their forecast.

Like the other 13 National Weather Service bureaus in California and hundreds of others nationwide, the meteorologists in Oxnard use a network of spotters, or volunteer observers, to help make their predictions.

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About 60 weather-conscious people in Ventura County alone act as spotters for the National Weather Service, officials said.

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“Weather geeks, if you will,” said meteorologist Clay Morgan, half-jokingly. “They let us know about conditions near them.”

William Edler, 57, is one of the Weather Service’s spotters in Thousand Oaks. A recreational forecaster with a small weather station in his home, Edler said he likes to help out.

“They certainly use us as guinea pigs,” Edler said. “But I learn a lot, and I enjoy it.”

McClung, who planned to arrive at the office at 2 a.m. today to continue tracking the newest storm, said the National Weather Service was putting some spotters near the Ventura River on Monday night to see if its banks overflow.

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