Alberta is famous for its thunderstorms – especially in July. Although lightning usually accompanies rain, it can also strike before the first drops fall – and when that happens, wildfire is often the result.
Last year, nearly 300 wildfires were caused by lightning. We don’t have any control over storms, like we do over campfires and off-highway vehicle hot spots – but we can track where and when lightning strikes, giving our firefighters a head-start on putting out any resulting wildfires.
To do this, we use a province-wide electronic lightning detection system to track lightning strikes and figure out which ones may lead to wildfire. Some lightning strikes between clouds, never touching the ground; it’s the cloud-to-ground lightning that can spark a wildfire.
The detection system consists of 12 sensors and a central analyzer positioned across the province. It uses the waveform of each lightning strike to determine its type, and then determines its location through a series of complex calculations.
This data helps create a real-time map of the areas where lightning is striking. When it is safe to do so, we can then send our firefighters to patrol these areas – helping to ensure a quick response to any wildfires.
We also use eyes on the ground – or high above it – to track lightning. Our wildfire lookout observers have a great view of surrounding storms – they report where lightning has struck and the weather in the area.
Once we’ve collected this data, we distribute it in real time to our partners in the lightning detection world, including Parks Canada and Alberta’s electricity providers. Storms can wreak havoc on the electrical grid; AltaLink, Fortis, ATCO, and the Alberta Electrical System Operator use this info to get the power back on as soon as possible.