Lightning strikes are sparking more fires in Okaloosa this year. Can they be prevented?
CRESTVIEW — Firefighters in north Okaloosa County have stayed busy this summer battling several fires sparked by lightning strikes during pop-up thunderstorms rolling through the area.
Capt. Corey Winkler, fire inspector and public information officer for the Crestview Fire Department, said crews have responded to at least four or five house fires caused by lightning strikes in the past few months.
“Which I know doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s actually more than we’ve seen in the more recent summers,” Winkler said. “Last year and the year before, I don’t remember responding to the number of lightning-strike fires that we’ve seen this year.”
Fundraiser for former Niceville chief:A fire chief saved lives for 42 years. Now, in face of lung cancer, he battles for his own.
Walton County expands fire services:New Glendale, Gaskin fire station expected to increase services in northern Walton County
The number of fires caused by lightning each year appears to be largely dependent on how active the thunderstorm season is. Some years homes will be left unscathed, but in others even four or five fires is considered a large number.
Trees and the roofs of homes are often targets because lightning will strike the tallest point in the area, Winkler said. Certain areas of Crestview seem to get hit more often, but there is no specific pattern to when and where lightning will strike.
“Lightning strikes are unpredictable, and where they decide to strike, what home, it’s highly unpredictable,” Winkler said. “What we’ve noticed, especially with the construction of newer homes and the increase of those in Crestview, when subdivisions move in typically they cut a lot of the trees down. And a lot of times your trees are going to be your tallest point.”
Many lightning strikes have occurred in subdivisions off East Redstone Avenue and in the area of Lee Farm Boulevard. This year, lightning appears to be striking homes in the surrounding jurisdiction of the North Okaloosa Fire District the most often.
Crestview firefighters assisted North Okaloosa crews Monday with a fire that had broken out in the attic of a home on Old Bethel Road. Firefighters arrived about 3:18 p.m. and could see smoke coming from the edges of the roof.
Flames also could be seen coming through the roof in one corner of the home. The size of the fire often depends on how quickly the homeowner can react, Winkler said. Most blazes caused by lightning begin in the attic and can sometimes burn for a significant amount of time before anyone notices.
“You won’t even see anything on the outside of the home because the fire is contained within the roof area within the attic,” Winkler said. “Sometimes the fire won’t even break through the roof until its significant enough that the home typically becomes a total loss.”
As with the fire on Old Bethel Road, fires in the attic can be difficult for firefighters to locate and reach. Crews entered the home and used a thermal imaging camera to find the fire. They then began pulling the ceiling down to gain access to the flames.
The process is often very labor intensive, especially on days when there is intense heat. In some cases, if the fire has been burning for long enough, Winkler said the entire roof can collapse, but fortunately that doesn't happen too often.
“We have had some close calls in the past where some of the Sheetrock has fallen," Winkler said. “Our firefighters are trained to be aware and be on the lookout for certain signs of potential roof collapse."
The fire was extinguished with most of the home still in tact, but the roof and attic were heavily damaged. A dog was rescued and no injuries were reported.
Not all homeowners are so lucky. While there’s not much people can do to prevent their homes from being struck by lightning, Winkler said quick action makes a huge difference.
“If you’re home and you suspect a lightning strike, typically you’ll know because you’ll have maybe a power outage and you’ll smell smoke,” Winkler said. “If you smell smoke or see it, don’t be complacent. Call 911, contact the local fire department and have them come out and at least check because a homeowner may not know that a fire has started in their attic until it’s too late.”
Want more local news? If you're already a subscriber, thank you! If not, please subscribe and help keep coverage of the most important local news coming.