Weather Wise: Lightning strikes cause forest fires

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Over the past few weeks we have had several chances for thunder storms and now, we are about to enter the time of year when lightning is on the rise.

The hot, white strike of lightning can hit anywhere. In a forest it is more likely to hit a tree, and public affairs officer for the Montana Forest Service, Kathy Bushnell says they have potential to cause more forest fires than people may think.

"Usually when the fuels are dryer it's a lot easier for a fire to start because of lightning.  I'd say it could be anywhere between half or a little under half of the causes are from lightning."

After the lightning hits a tree, the heat and energy spirals down the trunk.

"It kind of sparks from there and it gets into the duff layer on the forest floor and it spreads usually that way, and then moves through the forest."

Bushnell says all lightning has potential to spark danger in the forest, but dry charges are the ones the Forest Service worries about.

"If we have thunder storms that have a lot of rain, thats not going to do a whole lot.  So it's that dry lightning that comes through an area.”

But lightning strikes can be tricky, embers can live in the leaves on the forest floor for days before getting picked up by the wind and starting a fire.

"It's kind of interesting how long it can take a fire to even appear, for somebody to see smoke or something like that."

Bushnell says campers and hikers can help stop the spread of left over embers by drowning all camp fires and the surrounding area extremely well before leaving a campsite.  And now you're a little more Weather Wise.

Story by Kelley Smith, Beartooth NBC.
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Weather Wise, forest fires, lightning strikes, Lightning, Montana Forest Service, Kathy Bushnel, camp fires

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