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Dry lightning has started California’s most destructive fires. Scientists say it could be more common

By Rachel Ramírez | CNN

Dry lightning has ignited some of the most destructive and costly wildfires in California history, a new study shows.

Researchers found that in recent decades, nearly half of the lightning that struck the ground in spring and summer was dry — there was no rain nearby. Dry lightning typically occurs during storms over areas of extreme drought, such as California has experienced in recent years. The air is so dry that the rain evaporates before it hits the ground.

And the conditions that favor dry lightning are becoming more widespread and frequent as the climate crisis fuels mega-droughts in the West.

Dmitri Kalashnikov, lead author of the paper and a graduate student at Washington State University, cited the wildfires that scorched California in 2020 — specifically the August Complex Fire, the largest wildfire in the state’s history — as the motivation for the research.

The August complex fire originally consisted of more than three dozen blazes started by dry lightning. These fires merged into the largest in state history, burning more than a million acres in seven counties. California firefighters were exhausted that summer, CNN reported at the time, and they were particularly concerned about the potential for more dry-bolt-started fires.

RELATED: California wildfires: The 10 biggest fires of 2022

All of the seven largest fires in California history have occurred in the past five years, and four of those were caused by lightning, according to Cal Fire.

Lightning strikes east of the east front of the McKinney Fire in Klamath National Forest, California. A new study shows dry lightning has ignited some of the most destructive and costly wildfires in California history. (DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images)
Lightning strikes east of the east front of the McKinney Fire in Klamath National Forest, California. A new study shows dry lightning has ignited some of the most destructive and costly wildfires in California history. (DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images)

“With warming and drying and dry vegetation, it doesn’t take a lot of lightning to start wildfires,” Kalashnikov told CNN. “Even if dry lightning tends to become less frequent in the future, a single burst one day a year is enough to cause a lot of fire and damage if that should happen.”

The NASA-funded study, published Monday in the journal Environmental Research: Climate, is the first to develop a long-term dry lightning climatology in California and specifically focuses on central and northern California, an area where lightning is a significant cause of forest fires are .

The researchers found that dry flashes were most common in July and August, although regions with lower elevations tended to see a peak in activity later in September and October, when vegetation is even drier.

Researchers found that lightning in the Sacramento, San Francisco, Redwood, Sequoia, and Yosemite areas started nearly 30% of the fires, which accounted for nearly 50% of the total area burned.

“These are a lot of fires that are triggered by lightning, which are usually more difficult to fight because they’re typically farther away than man-made fires,” Chris Vagasky, weather forecaster and manager of lightning applications at Vaisala, told CNN.

Vagasky, who is not affiliated with the study, said the results provide “excellent background” for weather forecasters and wildlife management communities to better predict conditions favorable for dry flash to occur.

“This really underscores the importance of understanding when to expect dry flashes so crews can be ready in the event of a fire,” he said. “So it’s good to see that there is now a study for this region of the United States that not only shows the time of year, but also the type of meteorological conditions that appear favorable for dry flashes.”

The research is just the first step, Vagasky said. “As thunderstorms develop, first responders need to be aware that dry lightning conditions can be possible, but they also need to be able to respond quickly to affected areas,” he added.

Kalashnikov said there are still uncertainties in lightning research as to whether dry flashes will become more common with climate change. But one thing is for sure, he said, as the western drought continues, conditions are much more favorable for dry lightning to take shape. In the last year alone, dry lightning has sparked deadly and destructive wildfires like Oregon’s Bootleg Fire, which burned more than 400,000 acres.

“We know it’s getting hotter and drier — California is getting hotter and drier,” Kalashnikov said. “So we can say that regardless of lightning development, if lightning occurs with a hotter, drier atmosphere and vegetation, it will only result in a greater risk of wildfire outbreaks like the ones we saw in 2020.” ”

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https://www.ocregister.com/2022/08/09/dry-lightning-has-sparked-californias-most-destructive-fires-scientists-say-it-could-happen-more-often/ Dry lightning has started California’s most destructive fires. Scientists say it could be more common

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