By Katie Demeria
EDINBURG -- Josh Wilberger understands why snow melts so much faster in March than it does in January, and he can explain that polar vortexes do not actually exist. Now, over 10,000 followers on Facebook look to his advice before storms hit the valley.
But Wilberger will be the first to tell his Columbia Furnace Storm Team followers that he is just a hobbyist.
"I am not a professional, and I never claim to be a professional," he said.
In fact, Wilberger readily admits that he sometimes gets things wrong.
"Last year I predicted 6 to 9 inches of nothing," he said.
But his usual accuracy and ability to explain meteorological phenomena to local residents has steadily increased the popularity of the Columbia Furnace Storm Team's page.
Wilberger does not have any high tech equipment that allows him to track systems as they make their way into the area. He uses public meteorological maps and, over the years, has become skilled at predicting what can be expected of certain systems.
His vast knowledge of the nature of certain types of weather helps in his predictions, as well.
"The mountains play a huge role in our weather," he said. "A lot of times when you have severe storms coming from the west, they'll break up when they hit the mountains, skate across us, and then reform further east."
For Wilberger, a lot of his predictions come from watching the systems, understanding the geography of the valley, and guessing what will happen.
The most important part of the group, for Wilberger, is encouraging local individuals to remain prepared.
A police officer in Woodstock, Wilberger is familiar with how important it is to encourage people to protect themselves.
"Sometimes they'll say we're just increasing the hype around a storm," he said. "But that's really not the point. We're trying to give a message of preparedness. Any weather can cause inconvenience."
Wilberger said he never expected the reaction he received after starting the page. To him, meteorology is truly just a hobby.
"It does sometimes put a lot of pressure on me, because so many people are watching it," he said. "But it's fun, I really enjoy it."
Wilberger has been interested in meteorology for years. He said when he first got cable he had only 12 channels to choose from -- and the weather channel was one of them.
He started the group in December 2011, after the area experienced a severe tornado earlier in the year.
"Me and my wife, who we had just found out was pregnant with our twins a couple days before, took shelter," he said. "I haven't heard any wind that strong since."
After that, he decided to start the group to keep people aware of what he thought the weather would be doing. It was a personal hobby that became a community page, he said. People actively engage in discussing certain storms -- he calls some "snow hounds."
The support coming from the page has astonished him as well. Followers actively responded when he posted information about a local family in need after a house fire.
"That makes it great, the support you see from the community," he said. "Whenever anyone is in need like that, there's an outpouring of support."
Find out more about Columbia Furnace Storm Team at www.facebook.com/ShenCoWeather.
Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org