Looking for lightning: how crews responded to last year's lightning storm

Thousands of lightning strikes sparked more than 100 fires across southern Oregon on July 15th, 2018. Most of those fires were contained quickly. A handful grew to thousands of acres like Taylor Creek Fire and Klondike Fire. (News 10 file photo)

On July 15, 2018, a lightning storm swept through southern Oregon that truly kicked off Fire Season.

Thousands of acres burned and homes evacuated from blazes like the Klondike Fire and Taylor Creek Fire. Behind the scenes at various responding agencies, firefighters and corresponding crews were sent out left and right to smother smoke.

"It's like shattering a window and picking up the pieces immediately without cutting yourself, while everybody is watching," Dan Quinones, Deputy Fire & Aviation Staff Officer for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, said.

"It escalated pretty quickly," Brett Lutz with the National Weather Service said.

"There's 56 different fires that we're watching at the same time," Chris James, Detection Center Lead at Oregon Department of Forestry, said.

Lutz was on his way back from an out-of-town vacation on July 15th and remembers seeing the clouds and thunderheads before they started firing. He remembers thinking they might be problematic, but had no idea the extent to which the storm would strike southern Oregon - igniting more than 100 fires in total according to the U.S. Forest Service.

"In order to make it all the way to the surface from high up, [the lightning strikes] have to pack some serious punch," Lutz said.

Lutz detailed in his interview with News 10 that positive lightning strikes typically originate higher in the clouds than negative lightning strikes, making them more powerful and more prone to start fires. Sometimes, those fires may not ignite into something visible for days. On top of that, lightning-caused fires are much more difficult to attack because they could strike in places that are hard for crews to reach. This could lead to fires getting out of control faster than human-caused fires simply because appropriate response and resources cannot reach the fire lines. Even with air attack and rappel crews, fires deep within forests can burn longer without bulldozers and firefighters to secure the area.

That winter leading up to July 15th, snowpack and rainfall totals were low - meaning the ground was not saturated the way it should have been. It was dry. Just before that fateful Sunday, a rainstorm rolled through, providing much-needed rain. However, it didn't last.

"Prior to this event in July, it just got really hot - even by July standards," Lutz said.

The weather report the day before for the Rogue Valley did not have thunderstorms in the area until 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon or later until midnight. Oregon Department of Forestry called in all resources possible. New fire starts popped up every two minutes for hours, according to James.

"They were calling them in as fast as they were finding them," Marcus Havinear, a 10-year veteran firefighter with ODF, said.

Havinear worked the fire lines for hours. He says last year was one of the most memorable. According to ODF records, the 2018 fire season overall had 348 fires burning 49,311 acres and costing the district approximately $70 million. Most were lightning-caused. In comparison, the 2017 fire season had 345 fires burning only 929 acres and costing $6.7 million.

ODF Southwest District documents show Taylor Creek Fire burned 25,000 acres and cost $25 million while the Garner Complex burned 8900 acres and cost $40 million. The Garner Complex cost more because of the difficulty in reaching the fires and having to use aircraft and specialized equipment in the process. Both the Taylor Creek Fire and Garner Complex sparked on July 15th last year.

"That was a really unique storm," Havinear said. "Between Josephine County and Jackson County, you looked on the radar and it's like a big horseshoe coming across the whole thing."

Havinear started his shift early that Sunday morning. Typically firefighters in the thick of fire season will work 12-hour shifts and get replaced by fresh firefighters. This shift lasted 27 hours. Havinear did not leave his post until 11 a.m. the next day.

Inside the dispatch center for ODF, it was a similar story. Normally, five dispatchers rotate through calls, but when fire season hit last year everyone got called in for the agency.

"As you're getting those calls, you're trying to allocate your resources as best you can and order more resources as best you can as the calls keep coming in," Teresa Burkhart, the lead dispatcher for ODF, said.

ODF personnel spotting smoke like James saw 56 different clouds of smoke on their cameras at the exact same time - something James has never seen before.

"92 smokes that we reported over that three day period," James said. "31 of those were first detection by us."

First-detection means somebody from ODF finds the smoke rising from flames before anybody from the community calls them in. Crews need to determine if the fires and smoke sightings that are called in are different fires or if they are from the same smoke. The agencies work together to essentially triangulate the position of fires and smoke sightings using camera sightings and where people are calling from. They then determine latitude and longitude of the fire's position. Sometimes firefighters come across fires that may not have been called in yet at all.

"You turn the corner and you're looking up the canyon and there's smoke after smoke after smoke," Havinear said.

Havinear was initially stationed in the Shady Cove and Trail area, near the Flat Creek fires. According to ODF's fire records, there were at least five different fire starts in the Flat Creek area.

USFS says more than 100 fires started from this single lightning storm in 2018. Most were put out quickly, but a handful were not.

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