Mighty "plow winds" ripped across Edmonton and far across the Alberta Prairies late Saturday night, damaging buildings, toppling trees and raining down hail in a broad swath of destruction that reached all the way to the Saskatchewan border.
One woman in Edmonton was sent to hospital after a large concrete overhang on the CN Tower, a downtown building no longer associated with the rail company, crumbled into the street and onto the front of her car. Tens of thousands were left without power in the city, and emergency responders were flooded with calls from people reporting cars and roofs crushed by trees, and fires sparked by lightning.
Edmonton closed its cemeteries and municipal golf courses as crews worked to clean up downed trees, many of them healthy green ash, American elm and poplars that the violent gusts snapped mid-trunk.
The blame fell largely to the plow winds, a relatively rare western weather phenomenon that howled through downtown Edmonton at a near-hurricane force 106 km/h. Also known as a gust front, a plow wind happens when a thunderstorm grabs a great mass of high-altitude cold air and hurls it toward earth.
"This spreads out and can create very strong winds. It literally plows the ground in one direction," said Blair Morrow, a meteorologist at Environment Canada. "It can do quite a bit of damage, and that's why people think it's a tornado. But it's actually these very destructive, straight-line winds. And they cover a larger region, too."
Alberta was just the final recipient of bad weather from a cold front that came in from British Columbia, first plunging Vancouver into cool temperatures, then firing great volleys of dry lightning into the province's Interior, where it sparked forest fires and mass evacuations from Kelowna.
"It was a vicious front, clearly," said CBC Television meteorologist Claire Martin.
On Saturday night, the fast-moving winds pummelled Edmonton at 8:30 p.m., then pin-wheeled east. In the small town of Chipman, they dumped a trampoline in the middle of Main Street. In Cold Lake, 300 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, their ferocity woke residents, who rose just after midnight to see a wicked lightning storm arcing across the sky and toonie-sized hail battering the ground.
Some parts of the province were hit by hail the size of eggs, but Alberta Agriculture has not yet determined the impact on crops. Some farmers, however, welcomed the rain it delivered to a region stricken by drought.
"Looks like the fields got a nice drink," said Grant Cossey, who farms 2,000 acres of canola and cereal grains near Saint Michael, about 90 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. "It was a beautiful storm rain."
In Edmonton, however, the damage could take days to clean up.
"It looked like a scene from a disaster movie, because there's these gigantic trunks of trees sprawled across the road," said Rod Heinricks, who rushed his three young children into the basement when the worst of the storm hit, turning the sky an eerie orange.
"We've got these 60-foot poplar trees here that are 50 to 60 years old with these gigantic arms, and they were just bobbing and weaving and waving all over like I'd never seen them moving before," he said. "The kids were quite spooked, but it was a time of excitement."