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Lightning Safety

One of the most dangerous and unpredictable hazards of thunderstorms is lightning.
On a national annual average basis, lightning kills more people than all tornadoes and hurricanes combined, although it causes less property damage. 
In the United States, an average of 73 people are killed each year by lightning.  That's more than the annual number of people killed by tornadoes or hurricanes.  Many more are struck but survive.  However, they often report a variety of long-term, debilitating symptoms, including memory loss, attention deficits, sleep disorders, numbness, dizziness, stiffness in joints, irritability, fatigue, weakness, muscle spasms, depression, and an inability to sit for long.

Over a 36 year period (1959-1994), Wyoming recorded 21 deaths and 83 injuries resulting from lightning.  These numbers ranked well behind Florida which topped all states with 345 deaths and 1,178 injuries over the same period.  However, if these statistics are weighted to account for state population the danger of lightning in Wyoming becomes readily apparent.  The Cowboy State ranks #2 behind only New Mexico in number of deaths per million people per year with an average of 1.47.  The Wyoming average of 5.74 injuries per million people per year ranks #1 for the entire U.S.  Since 1995, and additional six deaths and 31 injuries have occurred from lightning.  All six of these deaths occurred in the mountains of Wyoming - namely the Teton, Wind River, Snowy, and Medicine Bow Ranges. Lightning striking grain silos

Photo Courtesy of John Ogren

Wyoming also experiences another destructive element left in the wake of lightning - WILDFIRE.  Lightning is the cause of 42% of the wildfires in Wyoming and responsible for 50% of the burned acreage.

How close was that lightning bolt you just saw hit the ground?  Count the seconds between the flash of lightning and the rumble of thunder, and divide by five, and you have the answer in miles.  Sound travels at about 1 mile per 5 seconds, so timing the interval between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder is a good indicator of how close you were to the actual strike.  Bottom line, if you can hear thunder it is time to move indoors.

30 / 30 Rule - Move Indoors! Observe the 30/30 rule!  If the time between lightning and thunder is 30 seconds or less go to a safe shelter.  Stay there until 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder is heard.

Lightning Safety Rules

Lightning Safety Out of Doors:

  • Move inside a sturdy shelter immediately! If you can see the lightning or can hear thunder, you are close enough to be struck.

  • Avoid being the tallest object around! Get as low as you can, but don’t lie flat on the ground. Squat on the balls of your fee. If you are wearing a backpack, remove it.

  • Avoid being near the tallest object around, like a tree. Sheltering from the rain under a tree is dangerous.

  • If you take shelter in an automobile be sure it is hard topped and keep the windows up. It is the metal shell that protects you, not the rubber tires.

  • You do not have to be directly hit by lightning to be affected. Lightning can travel along the ground or jump from nearby objects that have been struck.

  • Avoid being near fence lines or power lines. Lightning can travel along the wires and jump to your body.

  • Don’t take shelter in small sheds, under isolated trees, roadside picnic areas, or near water. Move to a house or other substantial building.

  • If you are hiking or camping in the mountains above treeline you are the tallest object. Move immediately below treeline!

  • Call for medical help immediately if someone is struck! Often lightning victims are not dead, their hearts have just stopped beating. Administer CPR immediately. People who have been struck by lightning do not carry an electrical charge.

Safety at home:

  • Stay away from windows and doors.

  • Do not touch anything that conducts electricity. This includes corded phones, wiring, plumbing, and anything connected to these.

  • If you use a cordless phone stay away from the base station. The base station is connected to the wiring and will conduct electricity!

  • Do not shower or wash dishes.

  • Unplug electronics before the storm arrives.

Lightning near Pinedale, Wyoming - Summer 2004

Lightning near Pinedale, Wyoming - Summer 2004
Photo Courtesy of David Bell

The casualty rate among those who participate in sports or outdoor recreational activities is climbing. Lightning is the most frequent weather hazard impacting athletics events. Recreation programs should implement a lightning safety program at every facility.

Baseball Player Cartoon

Action plans should be implemented, complete with locations of safe evacuation sites and shelters. These sites would include substantial buildings and fully enclosed metal vehicles with the windows up. Metal bleachers, baseball dugouts, and golf carts are NOT safe shelters. Avoid open fields, trees, water, and high ground. Next, a responsible person should be designated to monitor weather conditions during events. This person should not be the coach, umpire, or referee, as they frequently are unable to devote the proper attention needed to monitor changing weather conditions. The designated monitor must know the facility’s action plan and be empowered to enact the plan. The 30/30 rule must be observed! Lightning strokes from 15 miles away, “bolts from the blue,” are not uncommon. Activities should also be stopped if the sky darkens or appears threatening. Lightning can develop overhead with little or no warning.

More Information on Lightning Safety

Learn more by clicking on one of the topics listed below.

Wind Lightning
Flash Floods Tornadoes
Hail Thunderstorms

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