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Lightning Safety

Lightening Strikes

Hazards of Lightning

  • At 11:30am on June 28, 2015 lightning began striking Mt. Bierstadt  in the Mount Evans Wilderness of Pike National Forest.  Eight people were injured and three were hospitalized, a dog died.  They were 500 feet below the summit.
  • On July 17, 2015 one person was killed and three injured due to a lightning strike on the Denny Creek Trail, just above treeline, 11 miles west of Buena Vista, Colorado.
  • A lightning strike in Del Mar Park in Aurora, Colorado, on July 18, sent four people to the hospital with minor injuries, the lightning didn’t actually hit anyone.
  • By July 15, 18 people had died from injuries associated with lightning strikes in the U.S.  in 2015.  Typically,  49 people die each year from lightning strikes.  In most cases these deaths are preventable.

What were the people doing?

The 18 people that have died by July 15, 2015 were:

  1. Under a Tree, near home, walking dogs
  2. Parking Lot, waiting for friend
  3. On Horse, rounding up cattle
  4. On a Roof, roofing
  5. On the Road, riding on motorcycle
  6. Outside store
  7. Near Tree, Fishing
  8. Boat on Lake, Fishing
  9. Near home, Walking
  10. Campground, Camping
  11. Outside Home, near tree covering chickens (2)
  12. Rooftop of Home, Working on roof
  13. In Field, cultivating
  14. Under a Tree, hiking
  15. Walking
  16. On the Beach. playing volleyball
  17. Disc Golf Course, playing disc golf

The National Weather Service says:

“From 2006 through 2014, 287 people were struck and killed by lightning in the United States. Almost two thirds of the deaths occurred to people who had been enjoying outdoor leisure activities. The common belief that golfers are responsible for the greatest number of lightning deaths was shown to be a myth. During this 9-year period fishermen accounted for more than three times as many fatalities as golfers, while camping and boating each accounted for almost twice as many deaths as golf. From 2006 to 2014, there were a total of 31 fishing deaths, 17 beach deaths, 16 camping deaths, and 14 boating deaths. Of the sports activities, soccer saw the greatest number of deaths with 12, as compared to golf with 8. Around the home, yard work (including mowing the lawn) accounted for 13 fatalities. For work-related activities, ranching/farming topped the list with 14 deaths.”

Get Indoors

You will notice that all of these fatalities occurred outdoors.  The number one rule is that if you can hear thunder,  lightning is close enough to strike you, so get indoors quickly.  If there is no building to get into, get into a hardtop car. If a house is struck by lightning, the electricity will follow the wiring and plumbing to the ground – don’t touch either. In a car, the electricity will flow through the metal to the ground. Don’t touch the metal, the ignition or any other conductor that touches the metal.

Don’t Be a High Point

In many cases these people were the high point or were near a local high point.  For this situation, the National Weather Service offers these tips:

  • Immediately get off elevated areas such as hills, mountain ridges or peaks (or your roof!)
  • Never shelter under an isolated tree
  • Immediately get out and away from ponds, lakes and other bodies of water

If you are in a large flat area, you personally become the elevated area, so get out of there if you hear thunder.

Lightning in the Wilderness

The general rule at Mt. Bierstadt and other high peaks is to be off the mountain by noon, especially if there are clouds moving through the area and the weather forecast suggests thunderstorms.  In the Mt. Bierstadt case,  the first thunder came from the lightning striking the peak well before noon.  Clouds were moving overhead and the first clouds to build enough to generate lightning were right over the mountain.  This is common as warmer air is pushed up the mountain, cools and condenses forming clouds large enough to generate electricity.  Most people on the mountain did the sensible thing and ran downhill as fast as they could.  The injured didn’t have time to do that.  Jonathan Hardman and his dog Rambo were already heading down the mountain when they were struck.  Hartman was knocked unconscious, but was ultimately able to get himself down the mountain.  He told the local TV station: “My doctors told me that Rambo shared that electric charge with me, because he was right next to me. He was right at my side. And if it weren’t for him, I might have had that whole thing in my body alone.”  This suggests that the pair were hit by ground current, rather than a direct strike.

Types of Strikes

A direct strike is most dangerous,  thus the advice to get out of open areas.  The next most dangerous strike is called a side flash.  This happens when lightning strikes an object, follows it toward the ground and part of the charge jumps off of the object to strike a person.  In most cases this happens when a person is within a couple of feet of the object.  If you have to take cover under a tree,  stay away from the trunk! Once lightning gets to the ground,  it tends to travel along the ground’s surface in all directions.  If you are standing there,  the current will travel into your body at the point you contact the ground closest to the strike and exit your body at the point farthest from the strike.  This is called a ground current strike.  The farther apart the points of contact,  the more damage the ground current can do so, keep your feet together!  Ground current causes the most death and injuries simply because it covers such a large area.

The Last Resort

Some recommend taking a crouching position to reduce your risk, but the National Weather Service does not recommend that – mostly because it doesn’t help. Instead,  the Service wants you to avoid the danger in the first place.  The agency recommends:

  • Plan ahead, that includes knowing where you’ll go for safety.
  • Listen to the forecast.
  • Cancel or postpone activities if thunderstorms are in the forecast.
  • Monitor weather conditions.
  • Take action early so you have time to get to a safe place.
  • Get inside a substantial building or hard-topped metal vehicle before threatening weather arrives.
  • If you hear thunder, get to the safe place immediately.
  • Avoid open areas.
  • Don’t be or be near the tallest objects in the area.
  • Don’t shelter under tall or isolated trees.
  • In the woods, put as much distance between you and any tree.
  • If in a group, spread out so that you increase the chances for survivors who could come to the aid of any victims from a lightning strike.

The National Outdoor Leadership School does suggest one possibility as a last resort:  Sit as compactly as possible on your sleeping pad.  The idea is that the pad will insulate you from ground current.  If your butt and feet are all close together, the effects of any ground current leakage will be minimized.  You DO NOT want to test this theory so take all the other precautions first!

Learn More with this Video

The Bottom Line

Plan ahead, be thinking and avoid lightning hazards as much as possible to stay healthy and enjoy your adventure.

Factoid: Does Lightning Strike from the Ground Up?

Yes, and from a cloud down. Cloud-to-ground lightning starts from the sky down, but the part you see comes from the ground up. A typical cloud-to-ground flash sends invisible negative electricity toward the ground. Objects on the ground generally have a positive charge and try to connect with the negative charge by sending out a positively charged upward streamer. That’s why you might feel your hair standing on end – and why it’s good idea to get inside immediately if that happens to you! When these two paths meet, a return stroke flashes back up to the sky. It is the return stroke that produces the visible flash. This all takes around one-millionth of a second so you won’t be able to see all these details.

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