Dry lightning hits state; most wildfires small

Dry lightning hits state; most wildfires small

27 July 2010

published by www.sfgate.com

USA —  More than 4,000 lightning strikes lashed California over the past three days in an unusually intense midsummer electrical storm that sparked dozens of fires and sent crews rushing to beat back flames from Yosemite to Oregon.

Firefighters were battling 130 wildfires, the vast majority of them less than 5 acres, but more lightning is expected.

“The unknown is what is going to happen over the next 24 to 48 hours,” Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said Monday afternoon. “That is really the biggest concern. Often it takes a couple of hours or a couple of days where the embers heat up enough to start a wildfire, so we’re on alert for the next few days.”

Berlant said that 3,500 lightning bolts struck the mountainous regions between Sunday and Monday, and that more than 4,000 strikes have been recorded in California since Saturday afternoon.

Lassen County appeared to be the hardest hit, with two large lightning fires burning out of control Monday. The Constantia Fire, just south of the town of Doyle, had burned 1,700 acres and destroyed one ranch home. It was only 10 percent contained Monday.

The Russell Fire, east of Straylor Lake and northwest of Susanville, raged through 200 acres of heavy timber in the Lassen National Forest. The blaze, which was also threatening huge stands of nearby commercial timber, did not have any containment Monday.

“As thunderstorms move over the fires, they create very strong downdrafts, which fan the flames,” Berlant said.
Much like 2008

The bombardment was at least as intense as the electrical storms of 2008, when more than 2,000 fires caused by lightning sent plumes of smoke into the sky and blotted out the sun. Lightning has been a problem for the past several years. Last year, about 20,000 lightning strikes were recorded in the Sierra and Cascade mountain ranges in June and July.

The situation is uncannily in line with a 2007 study by NASA that predicted lightning would increase about 6 percent in future years as the amount of carbon dioxide – the chief gas blamed for global warming – doubled.

The latest blast of electricity came with storm clouds that originated in Mexico and moved over Arizona and into California, said Mike Pechner, a private meteorologist who has been forecasting weather in Northern California for 30 years.

Flashes of dry lightning began Saturday along the crest of the Sierra and continued Sunday, igniting fires as the storm moved south. By Monday, storm clouds were covering an area stretching from Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks into western Nevada and all the way across Oregon east of the Cascades.

Severe thunderstorm warnings were issued Monday covering much of the Sierra. Quarter-size hail, 60 mph winds and flash floods were forecast in Lassen County. Similar weather was expected late Monday from the California-Nevada border to Oregon’s Crater Lake area.

“It is unusual because it is covering not only the Sierra, but it has spread through most of the Great Basin in Nevada and has spread northward into Oregon,” Pechner said.
Rain and hail help

The good news, Pechner said, is that the midsummer storm has now expanded to include an accompaniment of rain and hail to the thunder and dry lightning. The precipitation, combined with a wet winter and spring, helped avert catastrophe, he said.

“There is no doubt in my mind that if we had had another dry winter, we would have seen one of the greatest conflagrations in Sierra Nevada history,” Pechner said.

It doesn’t make fire officials feel any better that the worst part of the fire season is still ahead. The United Nations’ International Governmental Panel on Climate Change predicted drier, hotter forests, and numerous studies focusing on the western United States, including the Sierra, have forecast increases in the frequency and severity of wildfires.

Fortunately, firefighters were ready this time, Berlant said.

“We worked closely with the weather service and moved a lot of resources from the coast inland in anticipation of the storm,” Berlant said. “For this one, we knew we were going to have a lot of dry lightning, and that’s what we got.”

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