Wildfire 101: Lightning Activity Level (LAL)

The Lightning Activity Level (LAL) is a measurement of cloud-to-ground lightning activity observed (or forecasted to occur) within a 30 mile radius of an observation site.


 The LAL is part of the National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS) and consists of two reports. The first report covers the period from the previous day’s observation until midnight (referred to as Yesterday’s Lightning) and the second report covers the period from midnight until the present day’s observation time (referred to as Morning Lightning).  Each report is assigned a number on a scale of 1 to 6 which reflects the frequency and character of the lightning. The scale for 1 to 5 is exponential, based on powers of 2 (i.e., LAL 3 indicates twice the amount of lightning of LAL 2). LAL 6 is a special category for dry lightning (see description below) and is closely equivalent to LAL 3 in strike frequency.


The Lightning Activity Level on a scale of 1 to 6 as described below:

LAL 1: No thunderstorm or building cumulus clouds observed.

LAL 2: A single or few building cumulus clouds with only an occasional one reaching thunderstorm intensity observed. Thunderstorms or lightning need not be observed for this activity level to be assigned; however at least one large cumulus cloud must be present.

LAL 3: Occasional lightning (an average of 1 to 2 cloud-to-ground strikes per minute) is observed. Building cumulus clouds are common; thunderstorms are widely scattered.

LAL 4: Frequent lighting (an average of 2 to 3 cloud-to-ground strikes per minute) is observed. Thunderstorms are common and cover 10 to 30 percent of the sky. Lightning is primarily of the cloud-to-cloud type but cloud-to-ground lightning may be observed.

LAL 5: Frequent and intense lightning (cloud-to-ground strikes greater than 3 per minute) is observed. Thunderstorms are common, occasionally obscuring the sky. Moderate to heavy rain usually precedes and follow the lightning activity. Lightning of all kinds (cloud-to-cloud, in-cloud and cloud-to-ground) is characteristically persistent during the storm period.

LAL 6: A dry lightning situation. Low lightning flash rate observed (less than one to three cloud-to-ground strikes per 5-minute period per storm cell passage). Scattered towering clouds with a few thunderstorms; bases of the clouds are high. Virga is the predominate form of precipitation.


National Wildfire Coordinating Group


Wildfire 101: Ignition

Since 2001, each wildfire season has averaged almost 73,000 ignitions and over 6.5 million acres burned in the U.S. Interestingly, the vast majority of these ignitions are human-caused, but the total acreage burned is mostly accredited to lightning-starts.

Annually-collected statistics on ignitions show that 85% of all wildfire starts this century have been classified as human-caused. Wildfire modeling studies point to higher ignitions due to predictable patterns of human activity along transportation routes, in recreation areas, and during certain times of year. Arson, automobile brakes, campfires, engine sparks, and escaped debris fires are the most frequent types of human-caused ignitions. 


RedZone’s compilation of 2015 Wildfires Igntions

Though lightning and other natural causes make up most of the other 15% of annual ignitions, they cause 62% of the total acreage burned. This discrepancy is due to the fact that fires that start naturally often occur in large forested areas with more fuel and limited accessibility, and are likely given less suppression effort since naturally-occuring fire helps maintain ecosystem health.



All statistics are based on fires and acres reported to the National Interagency Coordination Center at NIFC.

Wildfire 101: Fire Anatomy

Wildland firefighters use very specific terminology to describe the various parts of a fire.  The fastest-moving portion is designated the “head” of the fire, the sides of the fire are known as the “flanks”, and the slowest moving portion is known as the “tail” or “heel” of the fire. The origin of the fire is usually near the heel. A “finger” is a small area that is protruding from the main body of the fire, and may previously have been the head before a wind shift caused the fire to spread in a different direction.

Depending on the fuel and its arrangement, the head typically has the greatest flame length, flame depth, and rate of spread. This is also where the most active attack on the fire takes place.

The flanks of a fire burn outwards into the unburned vegetation. This results in the flanks having less alignment with the wind than the head, normally reducing their intensity and rate of spread. Flank fire intensity nearest the head is higher, particularly where the flanks meet the head which is known as the shoulder.

The rear portion of a fire is called the tail or heel, and is where there is the least amount of fire spread. Usually the flames at the tail are being bent towards the already-burnt fuel. The tail or heel is potentially the slowest moving part of a fire with the shortest flame length. Tail fires usually demonstrate low amounts of fire activity, but present a significant risk if they burn into areas that are more supportive of increasing fire behavior.

An “island” is a portion of unburned fuel that is inside the “black” (burned area) of an active fire. This often occurs when there are high moisture levels in that area,  or when the type of fuels or the topography of that area do not lend themselves to burning.  

“Spotting” occurs when the burning embers of fuel are carried upwards by wind and then distributed amongst the areas of unburnt fuel ahead of the main fire. The area immediately under the smoke plume is particularly vulnerable to spotting, although embers can be carried considerable distances and result in significant secondary fires. Spotting can break control lines or threaten the escape routes of ground personnel working the fire.


Parts of a fire. Image courtesy of Becoming an Air Tanker Pilot.