About 20 million lighting bolts hit the ground every year in the contiguous 48 states, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. Worldwide, the number is about 2.9 billion per year.
Lightning is not only frequent, it’s powerful, too. A lightning bolt can contain 100 million to 1 billion volts, contain billions of watts, and heat the air through which the bolt passes up to 60,000 degrees Fahrenheit. How hot is that? For comparison, the sun’s surface temperature is approximately 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, according to NASA.
With so much fierce power and heat, it’s understandable why lightning is such a concern every summer in Tooele County when it comes to wildfires in local mountains, valleys and Great Salt Lake Desert. But there is something equally or even more menacing than lightning’s astonishing fury.
According to the National Park Service, nearly 85% of wildland fires in the U.S. are caused by humans. Closer to home, more than half of the wildfires started in Utah last year were human caused, according to the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.
Even closer, last July’s Middle Canyon fire was caused by human hands, investigators say, as well as the July 2016 urban wildfire in Tooele City that destroyed 11 homes, burned 17 others, displaced dozens of residents and totaled more than $1.3 million in damages.
After an exceptionally wet winter and spring that has resulted in abundant vegetation, the propensity for wildfires may be great this summer. As reported in last Tuesday’s edition, Tooele County Fire Warden Daniel Walton said higher elevations in the mountains were last summer’s top fire season concern. But because of this year’s wet spring and vigorous plant growth that concern has shifted to the valleys — especially if the weather turns hot, dry and windy.
Because of that high fire potential in valleys, Walton urged property owners to prepare by creating defensible space and having an evacuation plan. He also noted that most structure fires caused by wildfires occur after embers get into eaves or debris-filled rain gutters, often going undetected for hours.
Lightning-caused wildfires are unpreventable; but human-caused wildfires are. Although an unattended campfire or an errant spark from equipment pales in comparison to the power of lightning, fire is fire, and doesn’t care what or whom ignited it. The tiniest flame can erupt and burn thousands of acres of land, destroy homes and buildings, and threaten human lives.
With fireworks season just around the corner, and local mountains, canyons and the West Desert filled with campers and recreationists every weekend, the chance of human-caused wildfires is a serious threat.
Residents and visitors are urged to use fire responsibly, and to be aware that sparks from machinery and recreational vehicles can unexpectedly cause a blaze with catastrophic consequences.
Lightning benefits the Earth in several ways, according to the National Severe Storms Laboratory. For one, it helps maintain Earth’s electrical balance between the ground and atmosphere. Without daily thunderstorms and lightning hitting Earth, that balance would vanish within minutes.
But such benefits, essential to Earth’s balance of life systems, don’t occur from a lit match in careless human hands.