Another hot day. Correction, another tinder dry hot day. How I long for rain, one of those cats and dogs events with giant drops splashing off the roof, splattering the windows. As clouds move overhead in the afternoon, I think — maybe, just maybe. CRACK! A clap of thunder. I count the seconds — one, one thousand, two, one thousand, three one thousand. Then the flash of light. The strike is less than a mile away.
But as I stare out the windows, I see nothing. No rain, just dark, angry clouds off in the distance. This is not good. Growing up in the midwest, thunderstorms brought lots of rain with them. But not this thunderstorm.
This thunderstorm is bringing plenty of lightning and thunder but no precipitation with it. Aside from a few random rain drops, it’s dry out there. This is the worst kind of thunderstorm when you are living in the WUI (Wildland-Urban Interface).
Because this kind of thunderstorm could easily strike a tree, or a stump, or a snag and the embers could smolder for days, even weeks. All the while, I’m thinking everything is fine. All the while, those embers are burning, and all it takes is a windy day to provide the oxygen those embers need to start a fire.
I learned about dry lightning while working one summer in Lake Tahoe for the U.S. Forest Service. I worked as an Information Assistant at the Truckee Ranger Station. Most of my days were pretty mundane — issuing firewood permits, backpacking permits, giving out information about hiking and camping.
But one summer day brought a ton of thunderstorm activity into the Lake Tahoe area. Lightning rained down from the sky as I neared the end of my work day. The fire crews were busy tracking down reports of smoke all over the mountains.
“Leslie, we need someone to stay this evening and assist the Fire Management Officer with monitoring the lightning strikes and reports of smoke. We’ll pay you overtime. Will you stay?”
Well, this is something different. Extra money and the chance to get in on the action of tracking fires sounded better than a quiet night at home.
What an evening it was. We had a huge map upstairs in the main conference room with the whole district split into squares. A system that tracked all the lightning strikes in the area gave out real time information on where lightning had struck. Meanwhile, I manned the dispatch to take in reports of smoke and also to track where our fire crews were relative to the reports. We used pins in the map to track where smoke reports were.
Crew who reported to the areas would radio back in to let us know the status of what they had found. It was a crazy night, with tons of activity going on all over the place. I remember the time flying by and feeling exhilarated by the feeling that I was doing something important, something that helped protect people, maybe even saved people — life and death stuff.
Fortunately for me and everyone living in the area, none of those strikes turned into a major wildfire that night. Our work led to several small fires being snuffed out by fire crews just in the nick of time.
But that night also made me realize that thunderstorms and lightning pose a serious wildfire risk. One of the biggest wildfires in Colorado’s history — the High Park Fire — started due to a lightning strike. Because of the rugged terrain and the extreme conditions of that summer of 2012, it turned into a raging wildfire very quickly, ultimately burning over 87,000 acres and destroying 259 homes.
So thunderstorms in Colorado? No laughing matter. The crack of thunder brings anxiety and nervousness during wildfire season. I’ll only let my guard down if that thunder and lightning brings torrents of rain with it.