Last year, while conducting survey with Brittany in a remote region of northern Alberta, I noticed some unusual scarring on a large spruce tree. Upon closer examination I realized the tree had been struck by lightning.
Usually when lightning hits a tree, one of three things may happen:
If the tree is wet on the outside, the electrical discharge may travel down the outside of the bark to ground and have little effect on the tree itself.
If the tree is not wet, the discharge may travel down the tree on the inside of the bark, which will result in scarring. In my experience, this will usually be one or more scars that revolve around the trunk of the tree as the discharge travels downwards.
If the tree is not wet, but is full of moisture, the moisture may be super heated and instantly turn into gas that quickly expands and causes an explosion. This may blow the bark off the tree, blow the top off the tree, or in some circumstances completely destroy the tree.
The tree that Brittany and I stumbled across had a considerable amount of damage due to the lightning strike. Yet, even though the tree had substantial bark scarring and its top blown completely off, it did not die and seemed to be in pretty good shape.
As rare as finding a lightning tree may seem, trees are actually struck by lightning very frequently. The Government of Canada reports that there is an average of 2 million cloud to ground lightning strikes per year in Canada, igniting approximately 45% of all our forest fires. These fires account for nearly 80% of the total forests burned annually. Although I wasn’t aware of these statistics until recently, my time working as a Forest Fire Fighter made me very aware of the frequency, since many of the fires we were called to fight were started by lightning. Even during a torrential downpour, lightning may still strike a spruce tree, causing a small fire to start at the base where it is sheltered by the branches. Days or even weeks later, when the temperature rises and the vegetation dries out, the fire may grow substantially in size. Suppression of these fires cost Canadian taxpayers a substantial amount of money. The Government of Canada has a whole section of their website dedicated to severe weather.
Taking refuge under a tree during a thunderstorm is very unwise. It may seem like a good place to keep dry during a sudden downpour, but it is actually one of the most unsafe places you could be. Indoors is always the safest place to be. However, if you are caught without shelter in a thunderstorm, the best place to be is in a low lying area such as a ditch. You might not stay dry, but you will be safe from lightning. Just make sure you watch out for flooding!
If you do happen to stumble across a lightning tree like Brittany and I did, you may want to take a little token for yourself (as long as it doesn’t harm the tree if it is still alive). Many people believe that the wood from a lightning tree will bring you good luck. Others believe that the power passed from the lightning to the tree, can then be passed on to whoever possesses its wood. Even if you are all full up on power and luck, you could always just keep the wood as a souvenir and reminder of the raw and devastating power of nature.
As Brian and I headed back to Swan Hills, we turned the corner and saw this fella chilling on the trail! The forest to either side of the trail, having been harvested in the last decade or so, had young trees growing tightly together, making it difficult for the moose to make his escape. We signaled our intent to continue on the path by revving the ATVs and moving slowly toward him. We gave him the time and space he needed to move down the trail and find a safe place to enter the woods. If we had just chased him, he would have become stressed and could decide to charge us. Moose are an underestimated hazard in the field. They are not carnivores, so it’s easy to think they will not be aggressive. In reality, they are one of the “biggest” wildlife hazards out there, both in size and temperament. Today was a good day for all three of us though.
This isn’t your typical circular campfire. This is the type of fire we learned to make during our survival course through Three Ravens Bushcraft. It requires much less effort since you don’t have to cut the wood into smaller pieces.
Weather can change very quickly in the foothills. From one day to the next, and within the day itself.
The following photos were taken all on the next day.
The weather can also change a lot depending on your elevation. In order to get out of the valley we were in we had to drive up and down a mountain pass. There was a lot more snow at the higher elevation than where we were working There was no snow on our drive in that morning.
If you spend a lot of time outdoors, either for work or for pleasure, you learn that the weather can change very quickly. You also become aware of how unforgiving mother nature can be. That is why it is so important to carry the right gear and to know some basic survival skills in case things go south.
This spring we took a survival course through Three Ravens Bushcraft. We learned how to make a warm bed to sleep in and brushed up on our fire making skills.
These skills are great to know and could save your life in an emergency. However, the best way to stay safe, is to try to avoid the situation in the first place. You can do this by preparing for your trip in advance. Make sure people know where and for how long you plan on going. Plan your route and check the weather reports. Also take into consideration changing weather conditions and alter your plans if need be.
The above photo was taken on May 24 2017, the temperature was closer to plus 18° C the day before. We knew this storm was coming a couple of days in advance so we were prepared for it.You can also check out Alberta parks website for hiking and back country safety tips.
Living in Alberta, we all know how disastrous a forest fire can be. Some of you might have been personally affected by the devastating fires in Fort McMurry or in Slave Lake. Brian knows personally how dangerous forest fires are because he used to be a forest firefighter. Many of us at Tree Time have walked though the remains of a burned forest and have seen what is left behind.
So when Brian and I were working the in foothills around Rocky Mountain house and we saw the remains of a smouldering fire, we took it seriously.
We noticed the smoke in the morning as we walked to our first target. The campfire had been abandoned, likely by people camping during the May Long weekend. This means it was likely burning unattended for three days. It looked like people had been burning garbage in the fire pit, including a mattress. The mattress frame was smoking heavily. The ground around the campfire was also smouldering a bit, and somewhat hot. The area around the pit was clearly burnt.
We put out the frame with water from a nearby creek. It was so hot that it caught fire again as soon as the wind touched it. Back at the campfire, we used our shovels to dig up the earth around the firepit and in the pit itself. Brian told me that he had fought many fires during the May Long weekend that started in this exact way. Not because of people burning garbage, but because of abandoned fires. People might think that they put out their fire, but debris (roots, moss etc) on or under the ground can catch on fire and spread the fire beyond the stone rings. You can see in the pictures that the area around the campfire has been burned.
That is why it is so important to make sure that you have properly put out your fire. Please check out the Alberta Parks Website for great advice on campfire safety.
Also if you need to report a wildfire, call 310-Fire (3473). Never put yourself in danger.
We thought we would share this story in advance of the long weekend to remind people about campfire safety. Alberta is a great place and camping is an amazing way to experience it. So from us at Tree Time, we sincerely wish you a great long weekend and happy, safe camping.