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Unusual thunderstorm rolls through central peninsula

Posted: July 27, 2013 - 8:38pm  |  Updated: July 27, 2013 - 8:41pm

Late Thursday night into early Friday morning, a thunderstorm tore through the central Kenai Peninsula, knocked out power and raised concerns about wildfires.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Shaun Baines said it has been nearly a decade since the Kenai and Soldotna area has seen such a “significant” thunderstorm.

“It is very unusual to see that,” Baines said. “Normally, the thunderstorms, they die off as they hit the Cook Inlet. And, in this case, they did die off a little bit but just regenerated right over the Kenai area in some more unstable air.”

The cool summers of the last few years have kept summer storm activity contained to the Kenai Mountains. Thunderstorms usually occur in the late afternoon or early evening when temperatures are at the warmest, he said.

The storm formed in the Susitna Valley before moving across the inlet and into Kenai and reaching as far south as Clam Gulch. The storm was formed because of a strong upper-level disturbance, Baines said.

“The main effect is it causes very strong upward motion, which is what you need for thunderstorms,” Baines said. “So it’s very strong, and it’s very focused over a small area so right out ahead of it as it’s moving southward toward Kenai it’s got all that vertical motion that’s helping generate the thunderstorm.”

The first lightning strikes were recorded at about 11:15 p.m. Thursday and the heavy rain continued until about 1:30 a.m. Friday. The storm dumped 2.3 inches of rain in Kenai, as measured at the Clarion.

In a Friday press release, Joe Gallagher, public relations coordinator for Homer Electric Association, said HEA began receiving reports of power outages at about 11:30 p.m. due to lightning strikes hitting power lines and damaging transformers and fuses.

The largest outage affected 758 homes between Skyview High School in Soldotna and the intersection of the Sterling Highway and Kalifornsky Beach Road in Kasilof. This outage lasted from after midnight until restoration by HEA crews at about 5:30 a.m. Friday.

The storm caused 24 separate outages stretching from Nikiski to Homer affecting about 1,000 homes and businesses.

Patrick Quiner, suppression foreman for the Alaska Division of Forestry, said the more than 100 lightning strikes in the storm has raised some concern about wildfires in the area.

“Because a lot of (the storm) had moisture with it, there’s not an immediate concern. But there are some areas that didn’t get as much moisture but still got lightning,” Quiner said.

Friday afternoon Quiner said the department, using a lightning detection system map, had an airplane out checking the areas stuck by lightning for any fire concerns. He said the department will continue to check for holdover or dormant fires throughout the weekend as it gets sunnier.

Quiner said the biggest concentration of strikes was in the Kenai, Soldotna and K-Beach area, but that area also got the most rain.

Dianne MacLean, assistant fire management officer at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge said the “little shot of rain” the storm produced was helpful with the wildfire concern, but to lower the risk of wildfires the area needs a “fair amount more.”

She said the dry earth deep in the ground could house an underground fire.

“I would be surprised if there isn’t some little smoldering fire as a result of a lightning strike out there.”

Kaylee Osowski can be reached at kaylee.osowski@peninsulaclarion.com.

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