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If a foggy day in London town gets you down then steer clear of Central Valley
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

The circa 1950s refrigerator weather has arrived.

If your family in the 1960s and early 1970s ever had an old Hot Point refrigerator tucked away on the patio, in the basement or in the garage as an overflow fridge that consumed electricity like a sailor downs booze after their first shore leave in a year you’d understand what I’m talking about.

The weather for the past week or so in large swaths of the Central Valley including Manteca and Turlock has emulated the inside of a Hot Point fridge you open in the middle of the night.

The light is dim as if it is struggling to stay on and the contents are kept at a temperature at a nice bone chilling 50 to 53 degrees 24/7.

Unlike modern refrigerators that act like the perky know-it-all kid that used to drive you crazy in the sixth grade and are so efficient, crisp, and so smart they can order your milk from Amazon Prime, they were dreary inside.

It’s the same feeling you get when one opens the door to your home and you venture out into a world socked in by tule fog.

Usually the tule fog season doesn’t settle in until January after a series of storms.

This year thanks to the Pineapple Express of yesteryear — today’s disaster-at-every-turn crowd gives the phenomenon an apocalyptic sounding name such as “atmospheric river” — drenching the valley allowing  sandy loam soil to soak up rain we have been enjoying tule fog seven weeks before Rudolph and Santa do their thing.

It is always fun to come across people that have moved to the valley from west of the Altamont that are stunned that we have fog here and that it is most of the time much more intense than the wimpy fog rolling into San Francisco “on little cat’s feet” Carl Sandberg immortalized.

They dismiss warnings about the intensity and staying power of tule fog. Such caviler altitudes last until they get to experience tule fog first-hand.

The fog that socks in the Central Valley is much more unique than the maritime stuff that bathes San Francisco as well as coastal, lakeside, and even riverside cities across the globe.

Tule fog typically starts appearing after the first significant rain during the rainy season. It radiates from the ground. It isn’t created by the heavens or still water.

It is then “trapped” thanks to the massive bowl created by the 450-mile long Central Valley that is 30 to 60 miles in width and surrounded by mountain ranges.

The density of the cold and mountains taming the winds combined with higher pressure and warmer air above create the perfect conditions for tule fog.

There is one other crucial ingredient. While all soil types can generate tule fog in the Central Valley nothing is as good at doing so as sandy loam.

At one time Caltrans identified the 120 Bypass corridor as the second worst freeway stretch in California behind a section of Highway 99 near Fresno when it came to the potential for a high number of days for thick tule fog and zero — or near zero — visibility conditions.

That’s because virtually the entire Bypass passes by sandy loam soil conditions.

There is a reason why farm settlers in the late 19th century referred to Manteca as the sandy plains.

For the better part of its first 20 years in existence motorists on the Bypass would pass signage for “fog check zones”. After the first sign advising you of the fact there were three additional signs placed at measured intervals reading “100 feet”, “200 feet” and “300 feet”.

When things went high tech in the late 1990s Manteca was the second place in the state after the Fresno area to receive electronic freeway messaging signs tied into weather sensors in areas along the corridor that were the most susceptible to thick tule fog to allow the posting of dense fog warnings for approaching motorists.

Up until the early part of this century traffic accidents in fog were the bane of 120 Bypass travelers. The last Manteca area major multi-vehicle incident involving four separate crash sites and 37 vehicles was in the mid-1990s. It wasn’t on the Bypass. It was on Highway 99 from Austin Road to Lathrop Road. It had been an almost clear morning until 9 a.m. when thick tule fog suddenly smothered the entire area in and around the city particularly near undeveloped ground.

That, by the way, is why the severity of tule fog along the 120 Bypass has eased over the years. The more homes built, the less tule fog generating sandy loam that is exposed. The biggest change came after 1999 when the first tract homes broke ground south of the 120 Bypass.

Tule fog can also drive you stir crazy.

You can drive up to Sonora in January and bask in 68-degree weather with sunny skies. And then on your way home slip into fog blanketing the entire valley where temperatures don’t vary by more than five degrees during a 24-hour period.

Such was the case in January 1991. We had 22 consecutive days where we did not see the sun when I was living in Lincoln in Placer County just a month before I moved to Manteca.

Yet for every one of those 22 days I was able to bicycle east out of Lincoln toward Auburn and pass the 800-foot mark to bask in crisp temperatures pushing 70 degrees without a cloud in sight.

The fog we enjoy or, depending on your perspective to tolerate, is not in the same league of that in London town or what allegedly rolls into San Francisco on little cat’s feet.

It actually is more impressive caressing 20,000 square miles of nature, orchards, and farm crops with life giving moisture setting the stage for stunning springs and bountiful harvests.