Lightning seen as source of northwest wildfires

Blog Post created by mikehazell Employee on Jul 28, 2014


by NFPA's LisaMarie Sinatra

Oregon and Washington have seen their share of wildfire activity this past month. News reports say that a combined 940,000 acres in both states have burned to date. Fire officials point to lightning as the cause of several of the large fires. Northwest Interagency Coordination Center spokeswoman, Carol Connolly, said this morning that 3,000 lightning strikes were reported in Oregon as storms moved from Northern California into southern Oregon and points north. These same storms, according to California news reports, created more than 20,000 lightning strikes across much of that state, including dozens in the Bay Area of San Francisco.

Living in the Northeast, I tend to associate lightning with heavy rain storms. So while California and much of the Pacific Northwest is experiencing severe drought conditions and high temperatures, I started wondering, how do these storms produce enough lightning to ignite wildfires while at the same time, not produce enough rain to end the drought?

After reading a few news reports, I think I found my answer. Brenda Belongie, a meteorologist with the U.S. Forest Service explains it this way:  “Lightning can hit a tree and just hang out, particularly after rain. It can smolder for several weeks. Think of a long, slow, glowing ember. Then, when it warms up and dries, a fire emerges.”

The Forest Service says lightning is the leading cause of wildfires in California, and as I mentioned above, lightning is the source of many of the large fires in Oregon and Washington. With more thunderstorms in the forecast for the Pacific Northwest, fire officials are worried about the potential for additional flare ups.

So while there are things we can do to reduce the number of “human-caused” wildfires, what can we humans do about lightning-caused fires? The U.S. Forest Service says that firefighters are using aircraft to monitor sites identified by our country’s “lightning detection system” which, through radio signals, can report a lightning strike within 15 seconds. The idea is to identify and extinguish as quickly as possible any fires ignited by these lighting strikes.

As for us homeowners, while we can’t stop lightning from hitting trees in our forests or rush to extinguish the fire after they've been hit, we can do something to reduce the amount of damage it can cause to our homes and property. Start by working around your yard, getting rid of dead and downed debris, cleaning out gutters and limbing trees. Creating defensible space, as this technique is called, is a great way to keep wind-blown wildfire embers from sparking a fire on your home or in your yard. You can find specific information about defensible space on our Firewise web page.

And it might be good to note that with all of these lightning strikes happening around our communities, we need to exercise caution to keep our own selves safe. NFPA has produced a great tips sheet and video, which provide important information to help you and your family stay safe during a storm. Take a look today and share this information with friends and neighbors. You (and they) will be glad you did!  

Photo courtesy of Wildfire Today blog