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Unusual thunderstorms ignite fires around Bristol Bay

Creative Commons

Southwest Alaska has had an unusual increase in lighting storms this month which have ignited at least half a dozen wildfires in the Bristol Bay area.

“A lot of lightning, more so in our area here than anywhere else in the state," said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy. "The places that you think of getting a lot of lightning likely interior, there's actually been much less.”

Thoman said the region's conditions were conducive to thunderstorms; moisture and sunlight causes a warm layer of air to rise in a rapid updraft to cooler regions of the atmosphere.

“So we've got enough moisture in the air that as the sun heats the ground that air rises, and is able to form those thunderstorms because it's cool enough aloft. It isn't just a matter of what the temperature is at the ground," he said. "And all of those ingredients have come together over the last several days across southwest Alaska.”

Thoman warned that lightning is dangerous. If you hear thunder, go indoors.

“If you're close enough to hear thunder, that means you're close enough to be struck by lightning potentially," he said. "At night you can see lightning from much farther away than you can hear the thunder. So if you hear thunder, that means there is lightning within about 10 or 12 miles of you.”

He said lightning strikes are rare in Alaska, however this is due to lower population, not because lightning in the state is less dangerous than other areas.

The National Weather Service has several public safety tips for thunderstorms:

  • Get away from high ground, or tall isolated structures like lone trees or towers.
  • Stay away from bodies of water such as ponds and lakes. 
  • When you hear thunder, immediately move to a safe shelter such as a building or an enclosed, metal-topped vehicle with windows closed and stay there for at least 30 minutes after you hear the last round of thunder. 

For more information about lightning, you can check the NWS website.

Get in touch with the author at or 907-842-2200.

Corinne Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer who grew up in Oakland, California. She's reported for KFSK in Petersburg, KHNS in Haines, and most recently KBBI in Homer. This is her second season as a fisheries reporter, and now returns as director of the Bristol Bay Fisheries Report.