Utah fires whip up after 7,900 lightning strikes
August 8, 2009
SALT LAKE CITY – Nearly 8,000 lightning strikes hammered Utah in the 24 hours leading up to its busiest wildfire day of the summer, according to federal fire officials.
That lightning, combined with gusting winds and bone-dry conditions set the stage for a rash of fires across the state that kept crews scrambling and calling for additional help.
A powerful weather system delivered about 7,900 lightning strikes in Utah – hitting all 29 counties – between midnight Wednesday and midnight Thursday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
Across the West, more than 103,000 lightning strikes were recorded during that same period, according to NIFC, which has access to a network of on-the-ground sensors that record electromagnetic charges when lightning hits the earth.
“It’s not unheard of to have 100,000 or so in a big storm,” said Don Smurthwaite, a spokesman at the fire center. “Many of the storms had significant moisture in them so even though it looks bad and sounds bad, it could’ve been much worse if the storms had been drier.”
The number of strikes Wednesday and Thursday is probably the most all summer in the West, according to NIFC meteorologist Robyn Heffernan. In Utah, lightning combined with dry and windy conditions were a “recipe for disaster,” she said.
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“So to come out of that situation with only a few new fires is pretty good,” she said.
By midday Friday, the state’s largest blaze – the Big Pole fire near Grantsville – had scorched about 70 square miles, damaging one home, destroying several sheds and threatening about 20 homes.
Crews have battled stiff winds sometimes gusting more than 50 mph.
“When the wind’s blowing like that, there’s very little they can do to fight the fire,” said Ed Delgado, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management meteorologist who tracks fire conditions in the region.
For much of Thursday, aerial attacks on the fire were grounded. They resumed Friday amid cooler, calmer conditions.
As many as five ranches in the area remain evacuated and national forest lands in the Stansbury Mountains were closed to the public. About 200 people are assigned to the fire. Additional crews were scheduled to arrive later Friday.
More than a dozen fires were burning in Utah on Friday afternoon.
“Everything we’re working on is a result of lightning,” said Erin Darboven, a BLM spokeswoman.
A grass fire near Salt Lake International Airport forced a runway to close Thursday. Airport spokeswoman Barbara Gann said the wind and the fire caused 17 flights to be diverted and that 200 to 300 people stayed overnight at the airport.
Cooler weather predicted for Friday and Saturday could provide some relief for firefighters, though windy conditions may also cause additional problems.