Woodstock, Ontario Tornado of August 1979

Woodstock, Ontario Tornado of August 1979

August 7th, 1979 started out like any other normal day for the residents of southwestern Ontario. Most of the summer had been nothing out of the ordinary; warmer and a little drier than normal and it looked like the 7th would be no different. While it began on a somewhat cool note, it gradually warmed up to comfortable readings although it became noticeably humid during the afternoon. Through the day, conditions became favourable for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, especially during the evening. Several tornadoes touched down and devastated the area, especially the southern end of Woodstock where the most intense destruction was. Two people died, 142 were injured and many homes were destroyed.

Sequence of Events

A relatively cool and dry airmass was being pushed in from the north by means of a cold front, into warm and unstable air from the southern United States. Severe weather had already affected northeastern Ontario the evening before with this same cold front; during the late morning of the 7th the front had stalled across the Bruce Peninsula, where newer convection produced a couple of weak tornadoes near the towns of Wiarton and Grand Valley (it is suspected that a large outflow boundary associated with these storms interacted with the lake breeze fronts, thus sparking these tornadic supercells).

At around 6pm, the front moving southward began to ignite thunderstorms near Lake Huron. They moved southward and intensified, and eventually began to develop into supercells just west of Stratford, where there were reports of a large tornado on the ground (later rated at F3). At 6:18pm, the next tornado touched down southeast of Stratford. It quickly became stronger and as it passed by Hickson it was near F4 intensity and was about 1 kilometer wide. Farm homes and outbuildings along the path were leveled by the violent tornado although it didn’t pass over any towns directly. It continued on an east-northeast track and then lifted northeast of Bright. Thankfully it did so, as the city of Cambridge was right in it’s path.

At around 6:52pm, another supercell thunderstorm northwest of Woodstock dropped a tornado near Embro. As it approached Woodstock it also quickly widened to over 1 kilometer and was described as a large black wedge shape, much similar to what would be seen in the Midwest of the US. It first hit the southern end of the city, shortly after 7pm. Many homes were leveled and all that remained were foundations and rubble. Cars were tossed around like toys and trees that remained were partially de-barked and in a few instances, straw and other small objects were found embedded into the trunks.

As the tornado left Woodstock it destroyed the town of Oxford Centre, which at the time was a tiny community of 250 and was nearly wiped off the map. In the 2 minutes it took to pass over, nothing remained. The towns of New Durham and Vanessa along the tornado’s track suffered a similar fate. The tornado eventually lifted near the town of Waterford sometime after 8pm. Shortly before passing over Lake Erie, the Woodstock supercell produced a second tornado near the shore. This was a weaker tornado (probably F1 or F2 intensity) that was not nearly as damaging as the other tornadoes. All of the thunderstorm activity pretty much ended by 9:30pm that night as the sun set and the cold front crossed into the United States.


Following the two violent tornadoes which hit the Woodstock area, over 1000 were left homeless, 350 homes were rendered uninhabitable, 2 people were dead (one person died when his truck was thrown off the highway; another was hit by flying debris) and 142 were injured. The city of Woodstock was in a recession during the late 1970s, and this tornado put a huge strain on the already reduced budget. However, many different people helped out over the following weeks and months. Ambulances from all over the region (Kitchener, Tillsonburg, London, St. Thomas, and Simcoe) converged on the areas hit hardest by the tornadoes. Local Mennonites also played a huge role in the rebuilding process.

People whose homes suffered little damage let neighbors live there temporarily until they could get back on their feet, the government and surrounding counties sent millions of dollars in relief. Businesses also set up drives for food and clothes for those who lost their homes. Even the local radio stations set up a 10 hour radio segment called “Operation Rebuild” which raised almost half a million dollars, which at the time was a large amount of money.

Comparison to Other Ontario Tornadoes

The Woodstock and Bright tornadoes were both rated on the Fujita scale as F4’s, the second highest rating possible on the Fujita Scale. Up until that time, there had not been such a vicious tornado on record for southern Ontario since the June 1946 tornado in Windsor. Following the Woodstock tornado, there was another major outbreak of tornadoes in 1985, near the Barrie area. Since then, there hasn’t been an F4 or higher storm that has struck southern Ontario. Comparing the 1946, 1979, and 1985 tornadoes, the Woodstock tornado of 1979 was probably the most powerful and damaging for a single tornado.

Damage photos of this tornado display typical F4 damage over most of the homes that were struck by it, although it is possible that the 1946 tornado was slightly more damaging, as some of the homes there hinted at possible F5 damage, however building materials and methods also changed from generation to generation. In retrospect, the Woodstock tornado of 1979 was probably the largest and most powerful to hit southern Ontario to this day. It is remarkable that only 2 people died – although Environment Canada put this tornado as the 11th worst; just behind the Buctouche, New Brunswick tornado exactly 100 years prior.

External links

* [https://www.canoe.ca/NewsStand/LondonFreePress/News/2004/08/07/571862.html The London Free Press: Deadly Skies]
* [https://www.tourismoxford.ca/indv_tidbit.cfm?id=67 Oxford County Tourism Information]
* [https://www1.cmos.ca/upload/1916.html The Woodstock Tornado Revisited]

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