Wildfire managers enlist new lightning detector

Fairbanks Daily News-MinerJuly 15, 2012 

FAIRBANKS -- The number of lightning strikes in Alaska just went up.

The Alaska Fire Service recently switched to a new lightning detection system that officials say will record more lightning strikes than the old system, as well as detect strikes at farther distances.

The AFS converted to what the Bureau of Land Management called a "technologically efficient time-of-arrival based lightning location system" on Tuesday. The conversion will increase the range and accuracy of the state's current lightning detection system, according to a BLM press release.

"It's just a continuation of the evolution of the technology," said Bev Fronterhouse, chief for business and technology management at AFS in Fairbanks. "Lightning detection is something we've been involved with since the late 1970s and almost once a decade the technology has changed.

"With every evolution, we've seen an increase in amount of lightning reported," she said.

The new system was installed during the past 18 months and has been running concurrently with the old system to ensure it is working properly. The comparison study showed the TOA system is reporting more than two times the number of lightning strikes displayed by the old system.

The Fire Service began posting the number of lightning strikes collected by the new technology on its website Wednesday.

Lightning strikes are a major cause of wildfires in Alaska and are responsible for most of the acreage burned in the state each summer because they often occur in remote areas and are left to burn because they don't pose a threat, information officer Mel Slater at the Alaska Fire Service said.

This year, for example, there have been 139 wildfires caused by lightning that have burned almost 195,000 acres in Alaska as opposed to 165 human-caused fires that have burned approximately 6,800 acres.

The ability to know when and where lightning will strike can help firefighters respond quicker, Slater said. More precise locations for lightning strikes means that surveillance flights sent to look for fire activity can cover smaller search areas and find fires quicker, which is a big deal in a state as big as Alaska, he said.

"It will give us a more defined location of where those strikes are occurring," Slater said.

The technology is owned by TOA Systems Inc., one of several Lower 48 companies that specialize in lightning detection. The same technology is used by wildland firefighters in the Lower 48, Fronterhouse said.

The new system utilizes sensors in Barrow, Kaktovik, Kotzebue, Fort Yukon, Galena, Bethel, McGrath, Glennallen, Tok and Sitka.

"We now have sensors on the North Slope where we've never had them in the past," Fronterhouse said.

In addition, the AFS will have access to data gathered by three TOA-owned sensors set up in North Pole, Wasilla and False Pass, as well as one on the Ross River in Canada. The Fire Service also is negotiating to obtain data from three privately owned sensors in Canada.

Previously, sensors were located in Bethel, Bettles, Cordova, Fairbanks, Fort Yukon, Galena, McGrath, Port Alsworth, Tanana and Unalakleet.

The Fire Service has identified Bettles, Nome, Port Alsworth and Yakutat as future sensor sites when funding is available, Fronterhouse said.

The new technology is more sensitive and capable of detecting lightning at farther distances because it uses advanced algorithms that record all lightning strikes versus the older system that sometimes recorded multiple strikes as one strike, the release stated.

The new system also records cloud to cloud lightning, which is the first indicator of thunderstorm activity, Fronterhouse said. Twenty percent of the strikes detected with the new technology are expected to be cloud lightning, she said.

"That will allow us to see potentially where ground strikes will occur, which gives us an earlier indication of where to look," Slater said.

In addition to better mapping the frequency and location of lightning strikes around Alaska, the new system also will save the BLM between $80,000 and $100,000 per year in maintenance, which represents a 50 percent decrease, Fronterhouse said.

"It's going to be cheaper to maintain for us because we're utilizing communication through the Internet rather than have phones at each site," she said. "It's less labor intensive to maintain sites.

"With the old equipment we had to go out every year to do maintenance," she said. "These new sites, because they're Internet-based, we don't have to shut them down in the winter, so we don't have to go out there in the spring."

Lightning detection in the Lower 48 is contracted out to vendors like TOA, but that's not the case in Alaska, Fronterhouse said.

"We've tried to pursue that option in Alaska, but it hasn't been cost effective" she said.

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Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com

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