Assessing Flash Characteristics in Lightning-Initiated Wildfire Events between 1995 and 2020 within the Contiguous United States

Christopher J. Schultz aNASA Short-Term Prediction and Research Transition Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama

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Phillip M. Bitzer bDepartment of Atmospheric Science, The University of Alabama in Huntsville, Huntsville, Alabama

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Michael Antia aNASA Short-Term Prediction and Research Transition Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama
cJacobs Space Exploration Group, Huntsville, Alabama

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Jonathan L. Case aNASA Short-Term Prediction and Research Transition Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama
dENSCO, Inc., Huntsville, Alabama

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Christopher R. Hain aNASA Short-Term Prediction and Research Transition Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama

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Abstract

Twenty-six years of lightning data were paired with over 68 000 lightning-initiated wildfire (LIW) reports to understand lightning flash characteristics responsible for ignition in between 1995 and 2020. Results indicate that 92% of LIW were started by negative cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning flashes and 57% were single stroke flashes. Moreover, 62% of LIW reports did not have a positive CG within 10 km of the start location, contrary to the science literature’s suggestion that positive CG flashes are a dominant fire-starting mechanism. Nearly ⅓ of wildfire events were holdovers, meaning 1 or more days elapsed between lightning occurrence and fire report. However, fires that were reported less than a day after lightning occurrence statistically burned more acreage. Peak current was not found to be a statistically significant delineator between fire starters and non–fire starters for negative CGs but was for positive CGs. Results highlighted the need for reassessing the role of positive CG lightning and subsequently long-continuing current in wildfire ignition started by lightning. One potential outcome of this study’s results is the development of real-time tools to identify ignition potential during lightning events to aid in fire mitigation efforts.

© 2024 American Meteorological Society. This published article is licensed under the terms of the default AMS reuse license. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Christopher J. Schultz, christopher.j.schultz@nasa.gov

Abstract

Twenty-six years of lightning data were paired with over 68 000 lightning-initiated wildfire (LIW) reports to understand lightning flash characteristics responsible for ignition in between 1995 and 2020. Results indicate that 92% of LIW were started by negative cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning flashes and 57% were single stroke flashes. Moreover, 62% of LIW reports did not have a positive CG within 10 km of the start location, contrary to the science literature’s suggestion that positive CG flashes are a dominant fire-starting mechanism. Nearly ⅓ of wildfire events were holdovers, meaning 1 or more days elapsed between lightning occurrence and fire report. However, fires that were reported less than a day after lightning occurrence statistically burned more acreage. Peak current was not found to be a statistically significant delineator between fire starters and non–fire starters for negative CGs but was for positive CGs. Results highlighted the need for reassessing the role of positive CG lightning and subsequently long-continuing current in wildfire ignition started by lightning. One potential outcome of this study’s results is the development of real-time tools to identify ignition potential during lightning events to aid in fire mitigation efforts.

© 2024 American Meteorological Society. This published article is licensed under the terms of the default AMS reuse license. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Christopher J. Schultz, christopher.j.schultz@nasa.gov
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