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Lightning has killed some 60 Utahns

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Since 1950, at least 60 people have been killed by lightning in Utah and at least 144 injured, according to the National Weather Service.

Lightning caused another death Tuesday night when four teens camping in the Uinta Mountains were struck during a severe thunderstorm, bringing to five the total lightning-related fatalities in Duchesne County since 1950.

The boys were camping with their local Scout troop at Camp Steiner, near Mirror Lake, when a lightning bolt struck their shelter — a three-sided log structure called an Adirondack — around 10 p.m. Paul Ostler, 15, Salt Lake City, was killed lying in his bunk. The three others were hospitalized but listed in good condition Wednesday.

Brad Wiggins, clinical nurse coordinator for the burn trauma/intensive care unit at University Hospital, said lightning-strike injuries affect the entire body, are particularly damaging to organs and often stop the heart. Internal tissue damage is common but can be difficult to immediately assess, requiring lab tests to determine which organs might need medical treatment, he said.

Dr. Morris Matthews, a physician at Cottonwood Hospital and a Scout leader who was at Camp Steiner and helped perform CPR on Ostler, said although the human heart runs on electricity, the jolt is a surge of power it most often can't tolerate.

"The heart runs on thousands of volts. Lightning is like 1 million volts," he said. "The heart can just stop."

Wiggins said lightning-strike patients are treated like other trauma patients, with resuscitation and fluids.

Eugene Van Cor, forecaster for the National Weather Service, said Tuesday's incident might have been a case of the lightning bolt that struck a nearby tree arcing to the log shelter.

"Lightning tends to go to the only object in an area, or the tallest object," Van Cor said. "It was probably such an intense bolt that it had a lot of arc over it."

One bolt of lightning could carry 1 million to 1 billion volts of electricity, and each bolt can reach up to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, Van Cor said.

Next to flash floods, lightning-related deaths are the second-highest cause of weather-related deaths in the country. On average, 80 fatalities and 300 lightning-related injuries occur annually in the United States, he added.

Wiggins said that sometimes victims will suffer thin blistering — the "spiderweb effect" — on the surface of their skin from the static electricity that lightning carries into the air.

"They will have thin-lined blisters all over their skin," Wiggins said. "Because they are so small, it just almost looks like someone took a volleyball net up to their skin and it was very hot." He said people can also lose their hearing because the strike is so loud.

Van Cor said that the key to avoiding lightning strikes is to "make yourself a very small target."

According to the National Lightning Safety Institute, if people are outside during a storm, they should avoid water, high ground and open spaces, metal objects, canopies, small picnic or rain shelters or trees. They should crouch down and place their hands over their ears to muffle the sounds of thunder, it added. People should also be a minimum of 15 feet away from each other.

Van Cor said vehicles are a fairly safe place to hide in storms and that people are safest in their own homes.

"Your electrical system absorbs the strike, and it goes right to the ground in your service box," Van Cor said. "They tend to follow things that are conductive — copper wiring in your home opposed to you."


E-mail: nclemens@desnews.com; afalk@desnews.com