Nature blazes its course |

Nature blazes its course

Lu Snyder

Lightning facts:

– Approximately 494,000 cloud-to-ground lightning flashes occur in Colorado every year.

– The primary hot spot for cloud-to-ground lightning in the state is the greater Pikes Peak region, including Colorado Springs. Another hot spot is on the Raton Mesa. The reason why so much lightning occurs in these regions is due to a combination of topography, low level wind flow regime, and moisture.

– The least amount of cloud-to-ground activity occurs in the San Luis Valley, the central mountain regions, and the Upper Arkansas river valley. The reason why there is not too much lightning in these areas is due to the lack of moisture.

SUMMIT COUNTY – Saturday night’s hailstorm was partnered with thunder and lightning, marking the beginning of Colorado’s severe thunderstorm season.

Unfortunately, in this time of drought and high fire danger, lightning equates to additional fire potential.

Francis Winston, chief of Lake-Dillon Fire Rescue, estimates that approximately half of the county’s forest fires each year are started by lightning.

“A significant number of forest fires are started by lightning,” Winston said.

Because a number of the wild fires are located on National Forest land or wilderness areas, firefighters aren’t always sent to fight the flames. Sometimes, the U.S. Forest Service lets nature take its course instead.

Winston recalled a fire that burned for several weeks in a remote area north of Silverthorne last summer. Though the fire was visible from some areas in town, it was remote enough to make access difficult. So the Forest Service kept an eye on the fire until it was suppressed naturally by rain.

Many factors are considered before fighting forest fires – especially those in remote areas, Winston said. Those that burn close to residential areas have a higher potential for danger, and thus higher priority, than those that burn deep in the forest or wilderness areas.

Though leaving a forest fire to take it’s natural course might seem risky, Winston said sometimes that’s safer than sending firefighters out to battle the blaze.

County fire departments have a 24-hour mutual aid agreement with the Forest Service, Winston said. “We won’t initiate an attack until we talk with them, assuming there’s not an obvious threat to populated areas.”

Of course, the rules might change this summer. Colorado’s drought conditions have affected more than the water levels of lakes and rivers.

“Some of the large trees are just phenomenally dry,” Winston said, explaining that the moisture content of trees has been greatly affected by the drought conditions. “They’ll burn a lot more aggressively.”

Even without drought conditions, live trees are susceptible to ignition by lightning.

“Lightning will ignite a live tree,” Winston said. “There’s a tremendous amount of heat from the lightning bolt itself – (a tree) will instantly dry out with the heat that’s there.”

Additionally, few of the state’s thunderstorms are accompanied by much rain. When lightning starts fires in fields or forests, there’s little rain to put them out, said Dan Leszcynski, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Lu Snyder can be reached at 970-668-3998 x203 or

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