Big Weather, big chase

Behind the scenes of a major storm event is extreme. Nicholas Searle, story producer of Big Weather (and how to survive it), joins international storm chaser and photographer Nick Moir in the hunt.
By Nicholas Searle October 27, 2020 Reading Time: 3 Minutes

Midday Friday the email dropped.

“SUBJECT: Moir Predicts Storms in Central West NSW”

Celebrated photojournalist Nick Moir had just contacted the production team of Big Weather. Across the ‘Black Summer’ of 2019/2020 Nick’s terrifying bushfire shots had shocked the whole world.

But the bloke also had 20 years’ experience as an international storm chaser, a passion which had seen him chase the worst storms imaginable across the United States.

Now, Nick was looking at weather models that predicted massive storm activity in Central Western NSW, most likely kicking off early Monday morning. He was on his way to Orange – did we want to join him?
Did we what!

Sunday afternoon we were on the road to team up with one of the country’s most lauded and awarded photojournalists. Nick is all curly salt and pepper hair and darting enthusiasm, and it was infectious. He is the son of iconic cartoonist Alan Moir. Powerful visuals are in his blood.

It was half five in the afternoon when we rolled into dusty Orange in anticipation of a quiet unpack, a good meal and an early night. The following morning promised a pre-dawn start. But as we pulled up at the motel, Nick bounced out into the carpark.

“The latest models are showing something big building near West Wyalong. How soon can we get going?”

We followed Nick’s lead. The Big Weather crew jumped to it. Cameras were assembled, audio kit rigged, people were shuffled between cars… we were back on the road in record time.

DOP Mark Broadbent and I shot from the back seats while Craig navigated and Nick drove ‘Maggie’, his white Land Rover Discovery, like a man possessed. It’s named after the feisty magpie and it’s messy as hell.

From the sound of his schedule he pretty much lives out it, this summer more than most. In fact, since October he’d been chasing the worst weather systems up and down Australia.

“The size of the bushfires is hard to grasp. When you’re shooting them you need to put something in the frame to give it scale. A firefighter, a truck, a house…”

Craig had downloaded a range of weather-chaser apps and from the look of them, Nick had been right to hurry us. Something huge was building to the west.

It was clear we wouldn’t make it to West Wyalong, the weather was moving a lot faster than we were. Luckily it was headed straight for us. Nick turned down a winding rural road, pulled over and there it was. behind the scenes

I couldn’t tell you how tall the storm was, or how wide. The scale was apocalyptic, like the dastardly work of a Marvel supervillain. A wave of desiccated ochre seemed to fill half the sky. After three years of drought, here in plain sight was evidence of how bone dry the land had become.

Dust storms like these can pick up hundreds of thousands of tonnes of valuable topsoil, cause dreadful respiratory problems, even spread bacterial disease, and it was just the frontal wave of what was still to come – rain, wind, lightning, perhaps even hail.

In no time at all Nick had his drone in the air to capture the scene, while simultaneously snapping away on his camera. His Nikon D5 seemed in a sorry state. Here and there bits were actually melted off.

“Had it for years – it still works fine,” Nick told us later. “Bushfires will do that – the heat is unbelievable. I had to cut my hair shorter – it kept catching fire.”

But what Nick calls ‘storm surfing’ means you don’t stay too long in one position, lest the storm get on top of you. From the inside you can’t see a storm’s extraordinary ‘structures’ – the shapes made by the unstable mass of air and energy. Also, you get wet. So we bundled back into the cars and raced to stay ahead of it. Unfortunately, even a small television crew isn’t as
quick as a solo photojournalist. The storm caught us.

We were done for the night.

The next day we chased Nick while he chased the storms. For Craig, it a whole new level of being a ‘Chaser’.

Later that day a hailstorm hit Canberra, probably part of the same system we’d been chasing. In just 10 minutes the city sustained half a billion dollars worth of damage.

Truly this would be the summer of Big Weather.

Big Weather screens on ABC TV tonight at 8:30 PM.