As wildfires ravaged parts of Colorado earlier this summer, a Web-based tracking tool was helping responders quickly and more accurately find the blazes caused by lightning strikes.

Called the Lightning Decision Support System, the Boulder Office of Emergency Management (BOEM) started using the technology a couple days prior to the Flagstaff Fire that started on June 26 and eventually burned 300 acres. As lightning pummeled the county, emergency workers were able to pinpoint the location of strikes in real time and more confidently send responders to the scene.

Mike Chard, BOEM’s director, said his deputy director, Sgt. Dan Barber, was manning the software the night of the Flagstaff Fire. Chard recalled that it was so dry and windy in the area, before Barber was able to get the lightning location data down to 911 dispatch personnel, the office had already received calls about it.

That first lightning hit was just the beginning of a series of strikes that the tracking software — developed by Weather Decision Technologies (WDT) — helped locate that evening in Boulder County.

“That night we had another four or five lightning strike fires, so we were going crazy around here, and the lightning strike software seemed to pick all those up and help us out directing people to these strikes,” Chard said.

Monitoring the weather has become commonplace for emergency officials in Boulder County. The BOEM established a severe weather protocol a couple of years ago in response to a wildfire in Fourmile Canyon that destroyed 169 homes. Once lightning or other harsh weather begins, Chard’s team goes into a monitoring phase where it pushes out information and warnings to first responders and engages weather spotters. Chard said the lightning strikes tracking tool was a natural extension of that protocol.

“One of the philosophies that we are using here is instead of waiting for disaster to hit, we are trying to fill another void, which is to be more predictive in our efforts to pass [along] information, increase awareness and decrease reaction time,” Chard said. “It seems to be working well.”

How It Works

The Lightning Decision Support System operates off a Google Map interface that can be accessed via a computer or mobile device. The program imports cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning data from Earth Networks’ Total Lightning Network, which features more than 550 lightning sensors measuring atmospheric conditions. The sensors are scattered around the world. The information is compiled using a mathematical formula to show the location of each lightning incident.

In an email to Government Technology, David VandenHeuvel, senior vice president of enterprise solutions for WDT, explained that data from the sensors is processed by the company in real time and displayed via standard Internet connections. The information is collocated with the National Weather Center.

“This allows us direct connections to many high-volume data sets from the National Weather Service,” VandenHeuvel wrote. “WDT also uses satellite dishes and other types of connections to receive data in the fastest methods possible.”

When an emergency worker accesses the system online, he or she see markers that indicate where lightning has hit, including the latitude and longitude coordinates of the strikes. Chard said the program plots the lightning strikes within 300 meters of their actual locations.

In the foothills and at higher elevations, the results tend to be a little less accurate. But prior to the system being installed, emergency personnel relied on reports from the community, so the technology has been helpful to speed up response time to lightning fires.

“Most of the time you are driving up and down rural roads because someone saw a strike over in a ridgeline and it’s very difficult to gauge [where the lightning impact occurred],” Chard said. “So this at least gives people an idea of generally where they should go.”

Weather Alerts

The lightning program also provides alerts when weather conditions start to deteriorate.

Brian Heaton  | 

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.