Make sure lightning isn’t part of fireworks
June 29, 2007
June 30th marks the end of Lightning Awareness Week, but is the lead-in to the beginning of lightning season. With a multitude of outdoor Fourth of July activities to choose from in Summit County, a few basic precautions could save a life.
Lightning kills around 60 people a year in the United States, and several fatalities per year are not uncommon, with mountainous areas prone to lightning strikes and people taking advantage of the great Utah outdoors.
It is hard to imagine that an occurrence of nature can zap, like the tongue of a lizard, with a 100 million volt, 50,000 -degree surprise for whatever is in its path.
Someone hit by lightning has a nine-in-10 chance of survival, said Brian McInerney, a hydrologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. The bad news it that 70 percent of survivors suffer serious long-term effects.
McInerney, a former ski patroller, said "lightning messes with a person’s electrical system." That can easily stop a victim’s heart as well as the function of other vital organs. Burns resulting from lightning are also common.
Despite his knowledge and background, even McInerney was caught in a precarious situation with lightning. "I was with my young son, camping overnight in Jupiter Bowl. We got caught in a lightning and thunder storm, and had no safe place to go. Marble-size hail was hitting our tent. It was truly frightening."
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McInerney said most thunder storms and lightning occur in the afternoon to evening. "Mid July through August are the most likely months, with the monsoonal flow from the Pacific."
He said there are few safe places to be outdoors when in the vicinity of a lightning storm. His best advice is to check the weather forecast before taking part in outdoor activities, especially NOAA weather radio broadcasts, which are localized and updated often. "If there is a high probability of a thunderstorm, maybe you should do something else," he said.
Because lightning tends to strike the highest points, Mountains are especially risky, combined with a higher likelihood of thunderstorms. He said that if dark clouds start forming, it would be a good idea to leave the area. But thunder clouds may be looming out of sight behind a nearby peak.
If caught in a mountain thunder and lightning storm, McInerney said to seek a grounded building (that has wiring or metal entering the ground, that a lightning bolt could pass through. Also automobiles are relatively safe. But the mountain itself offers little protection. Trees contain a huge volume of water, and they are high points. A strike will go down the tree, through the roots and into any object above the roots, he said. He recommended to become the lowest object in the area, and get in a crouch on the balls of your feet to have less surface area exposed to lightning coming from above – or below.
Water is another medium where people are especially vulnerable. A person in the water is not only likely the highest object around, but water, with its excellent conductive properties can radiate a lightning strike for a fair distance. McInerney said that people in boats should stay in the boat and try to get to shore.
A wives tale says lightning never strikes the same place twice but some humans have been by lightning several times. Golfer Lee Trevino has been hit twice in his career. He is famous for saying, "If you are caught on a golf course during a thunderstorm and are afraid of getting hit by lightning, hold up a one iron. God can’t even hit a one iron."
McInerney doesn’t believe certain people are more prone to lightning strikes, but, "Anecdotally, people have been hit multiple times. It sure would make people think about it, wouldn’t it?"
"It all comes down to common sense," he said. "Get as much information as you can get. Start early, if you start to see a vertical development of clouds, wrap up what you are doing and get out."
Indoor safety suggestions from NOAA:
Stay safe while inside
A house or other substantial building offers the best protection from lightning.
For a shelter to provide protection from lightning, it must contain a mechanism
for conducting the electrical current from the point of contact to the ground. On
the outside, lightning can travel along the outer shell of the building or may follow
metal gutters and downspouts to the ground. Inside a structure, lightning
can follow conductors such as the electrical wiring, plumbing, and telephone
lines to the ground.
Avoid Unsafe Shelters!
Unless specifically designed to be lightning safe, small structures do little, if
anything, to protect occupants from lightning. A shelter that does not contain
plumbing or wiring throughout, or some other mechanism for grounding from
the roof to the ground is not safe.
How Lightning Enters a House or Building
There are three main ways lightning enters homes and buildings: (1) a direct
strike, (2) through wires or pipes that extend outside the structure, and (3)
through the ground. Regardless of the method of entrance, once in a structure,
the lightning can travel through the electrical, phone, plumbing, and radio/
television reception systems.
Stay Safe While Inside!
Avoid contact with corded phones and electrical equipment. Phone use is
the leading cause of indoor lightning injuries in the United States.
If you plan to unplug any electronic equipment, do so well before the storm
Avoid contact with plumbing. Do not wash your hands, do not take a shower,
do not wash dishes, and postpone doing laundry.
Stay away from windows and doors, and stay off porches.
Do not lie on concrete floors and do not lean against concrete walls.