Facebook Twitter

Take precautions to stay safe when lightning is near

SHARE Take precautions to stay safe when lightning is near

Lightning has killed 60 people in Utah in the past 50 years and kills an average of 66 people per year in the United States, more than any other type of hazardous weather.

Even so, lightning often doesn't get as much attention as other weather events such as hurricanes, which kill more people at a time and cause more property damage, said Brian McInerny, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service.

To raise awareness of the dangers of lightning and help keep people safe, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. declared last week Lightning Safety Awareness Week.

"If you take precautions, you can be OK and still enjoy the outdoors," McInerny said.

If you can see lightning, head indoors, he said. Even if it's not raining, there's still danger, because lightning can strike up to 10 miles away from a storm. Once inside, close doors and windows and avoid contact with corded electrical equipment, plumbing and water, because they can conduct electricity if a strike occurs, McInerny said. Also, avoid touching concrete, because it usually contains metal bars.

If you're in an area where there are no buildings, be sure you're not standing under a tall tree, because lightning usually strikes the highest object in an area and can travel down it. Get low to the ground and "hunker down and wait for the storm to pass," McInerny said.

Because light travels much faster than sound, there is usually a delay between the time lightning strikes and when the thunder is heard. The shorter the time between a lightning strike and the thunder, the closer the lightning is, McInerny said. Every five seconds of delay means the lightning is one mile away.

Because of recent dry weather, lightning danger may be far from most people's minds, but the number of thunderstorms usually increases between mid-July and early September, McInerny said. The air over Arizona and Mexico heats up during late summer and rises. Moist air from over the Gulf of Mexico moves to take its place and continues into Utah, causing more thunderstorms in the late summer months.

The most recent lightning death in Utah occurred at Camp Steiner Boy Scout camp in the Uinta Mountains in August 2005. A bolt of lightning struck a tree, traveled down the trunk and leaped to a nearby shelter where five Scouts were bedded down. Boy Scout Paul Ostler was killed, and three other boys were hospitalized.

Lightning bolts can be up to five miles long, reach temperatures of up to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit and carry a charge of up to 100 million volts. On average, there are about 25 million lightning strikes in the United States each year.

E-mail: dfelix@desnews.com