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Memoirs of a weatherman

Hunsaker offers insight into his life, and doles out advice

Sierra Pacific Power workers were sweating as they piled sandbags along the banks of the Truckee River on Saturday, Dec. 19, 1964. It was a dry day, and a visiting gambler asked about the sandbags.

Some nut in San Francisco says there is going to be a flood, a worker said.

The nut was Leon Hunsaker. He was right about the flood, in a gutsy call. He went on to become a longtime television weatherman in the Rogue Valley. Now 80, he has written a book, Getting Started, that looks back on that career and finds that storm a seminal event.

I wanted to leave my grandchildren an idea of the kind of man I was, he says on the deck of his rural Josephine County home beneath looming Sexton Mountain.

Throughout the self-published book (99 pages and an appendix), Hunsaker highlights his tips for life by putting them in boldface and surrounding them with white space. These range from strategies (... where possible, leave some wiggle room for the exercise of common sense!) to homilies (Don't forget to remind the key people in your life how much you appreciate them; you will be glad you did!).

Hunsaker worked on the project off and on for six or seven years, finally hitting on the idea of a series of essays. The first of these, titled the same as the book, covers his youth on a Utah farm, schooling, military service and his early career in the 1950s and early 1960s.

It was a time when meteorology was in the dark ages compared to today. There were no satellite images. Computers had yet to make major inroads, and they weren't trusted.

Hunsaker grew up milking cows and picking peas around Deweyville, Utah, attended technical school, got a job as a riveter building aileron spars for P-51s for 65 cents an hour. He attended Utah State Agricultural College, was drafted in 1942, got his pilot's wings and was on his way to the Pacific when the war ended.

He graduated from Parks College in three years and went on to Air Force duty in England and graduate work at MIT. He worked for PG&E in central California, taught school, became a civilian weather forecaster for the U.S. Air Force, then rejoined PG&E.

His groundbreaking work on a 1962 cold wave led him to look at forecasting on a much larger scale than people had been doing, about two-thirds of the way around the Northern Hemisphere.

It wasn't long before I was examining what was happening along the jet stream all the way back across the Pacific Ocean, Asia and into Western Europe, he says.

The mid-latitude jet stream (or polar jet) is a river of air flowing east. It sometimes swings north or south. Its core is changeable, but Hunsaker says it's about 25 to 50 miles wide and 3,000 to 7,000 miles thick. It can blow at 200 and 300 mph but on the average is around 78 mph in the winter and less in summer.

Hunsaker soon concluded that cold waves along the West Coast of the United States can be predicted three to four days in advance if the meteorologist keeps track of how the jet stream is interacting with the area of high pressure around Alaska.

the time of the 1964 storm, he'd developed tools that allowed him to make a bold call. Much of this work centered around the high-speed transmission of energy along the jet stream. Hunsaker believes he was one of only two people in the world using the techniques (the other was in North Carolina).

It depended on if the jet stream was going to go under Hawaii or go up through Alaska, he says. The whole question is how this breaks through and brings warm, moist air from Hawaii.

Hunsaker issued a major flood forecast (issuing warnings to the public is up to the National Weather Service) the morning of Dec. 18. the next day, a trough of low pressure had crossed Japan, confirming Hunsaker's call. On Sunday, the breakthrough of the jet stream under the Alaskan High was in full swing.

On the 23rd, the San Francisco Examiner said, It's just like '55. Actually, the flood was bigger. It was the flood of the century there and in Oregon, with loss of life, bridges washed out and so on.

Hunsaker says it was the crown jewel of his career.

He went on to become the weatherman on KTVL-TV in Medford for 17 years before retiring to Hugo in rural Josephine County. He did not, contrary to public belief, coin the term pineapple express to describe wet, warm storms coming at Oregon out of the Pacific.

Whoever made it up, I sure latched onto it, he says with a laugh.

He's heard the jokes about weather forecasters always getting it wrong (an assertion not borne out by the record). He says the amount of irritation contained in such barbs varied directly with the amount of sleep he'd had.

In the next world, he says, I'm going to make sure there's insult pay.

Hunsaker's book is available at Copy Quik, The Book Stop and Oregon Books in Grants Pass or by logging onto .

Leon Hunsaker, 80, a retired weatherman from KTVL Channel 10, has written a book looking back on his career. Hunsaker was one of the first to start long-range tracking of the jet stream to make more accurate predictions for the West Coast. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven