Lightning Fires and Lightning Strikes

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Report: NFPA's "Lightning Fires and Lightning Strikes"
Author: Marty Ahrens
Issued: June 2013

This analysis of lightning fires and lightning strikes includes information on incident type, and when and where the incidents occurred. Also includes selected published incident descriptions.

Executive summary

During 2007-2011, U.S. local fire departments responded to an estimated average of 22,600 fires per year that were started by lightning. These fires caused an average of nine civilian deaths, 53 civilian injuries, and $451 million in direct property damage per year. Most of these fires occurred outdoors, but most associated deaths, injuries, and property damage were associated with home fires. Fires started by lightning peak in the summer months and in the later afternoon and early evening. The January 2006 West Virginia coal mine explosion that claimed 12 lives was the deadliest U.S. fire started by lightning in recent years. Nine firefighters were killed in an August 2008 helicopter crash as they were being evacuated from a California wildland fire started by lightning.

Lightning-related fires are more common in June through August and in the late afternoon and evening. Peak seasons for lightning-related fires vary by region, as do weather patterns in general.   

In addition to the fires reported to local fire departments, federal and state wildland firefighting agencies reported an average of 9,000 wildland fires started by lightning to the National Interagency Fire Center per year in 2008-2012.  These fires tended to be larger than fires started by human causes.  The average lightning-caused fire burned 402 acres, nine times the average of 45 acres seen in human-caused wildland fires. 

Over the 10 years from 2003-2012, 42 U.S. firefighters were killed as a result of lightning-caused fires. These deaths include fatalities during fireground activities, as well as responding or returning to fires.  Four of these deaths occurred at structure fires, and the remaining 38 were killed as the result of wildland fires.  Eleven of these deaths occurred in helicopter crashes. 

In addition to causing fires, lightning is dangerous on its own.  Data from the National Weather Service show that in 2008-2012, an average of 29 people per year died as a result of lightning strikes.  The most common location for these deaths was outside or in an open area.  The average number of lightning flashes per square mile varies considerably by state, as does the death rate from lightning incidents. See for more information.

In 2003, the last year for which data about fire department responses to non-fire incidents is currently available, 10,200 non-fire lightning strikes were reported to local fire departments. The majority of these, 62%, occurred at home properties.