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Outdoor enthusiasts should take lightning seriously

April 18, 2009
By KENNETH COBB, For The Inter-Mountain

Lightning is a form of static electricity that man has no control over. It typically occurs during thunderstorms, sometimes during volcanic eruptions, dust storms, and even forest fires. This form of electricity strikes the surface of the Earth about 25 million times a year.

The spring and summer are the peak seasons for some of nature's deadliest weather. In the United States, lightning kills more people each year than hurricanes and tornadoes.

An individual struck by lightning is not a common occurrence. At the same time, it is not freakish either. A single lightning bolt can reach a temperature of more than 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This is about five times the surface temperature of the sun. To make a long story short, lightning can fry a person's brain and turn a body into a charred shell.

When lightning is occurring, the most dangerous place to be is in an open area like a sports field. About half of the deaths from lightning happen in such settings. Many others are killed when they are under a large tree during a thunderstorm. Outdoor water activities like boating, fishing, and swimming are very dangerous during a thunderstorm. Be alert to approaching bad weather. Lightning has been known to strike more than 10 miles away from a thunderstorm.

I have had two narrow escapes with lightning when I was young and careless. The first came in 1955 when I was swimming at Rock Lake Pool in South Charleston. A thunderstorm was overhead when the management ordered everyone out of the pool. I was one of the last to leave the swimming area. Less than two minutes after I left the pool, lightning struck the water. Fortunately, no one was injured. The second narrow escape came when I was sixteen. I was delivering morning newspapers in Dunbar when lightning struck a large tree I had just walked under. When thunderstorms are in the immediate area, people need to take cover as if their life depends on it - because it does.

Most Americans consider thunderstorms minor inconveniences. Traffic keeps moving and outdoor games go on until the pelting rain arrives. This has become a cultural habit in this country. The chances of being struck by lightning are about the same as winning a lottery jackpot. Risk takers need to consider the consequences or severity of their actions.

Covered picnic shelters, tents, and convertibles (even with the roof up) offer very little protection from lightning. If lightning strikes a motor vehicle with a metal roof, it does provide a safe shelter. The electricity flows around the metal shell and is redirected to the ground. The occupants are protected as long as they stay away from anything that conducts electricity. Contrary to popular belief, the rubber tires do not provide any protection.

Many people who are struck by lightning are not killed outright, but they are badly injured. One such person was Michael Utley of Massachusetts. Utley was struck by lightning on a golf course in May 2000. The lightning strike had a halo effect on his body. For ten minutes, his golfing companions administered CPR forcing life into his body. He was unconscious for a few days when he woke up in intensive care. He did not recover his memory for more than a month. It took about a year to relearn basic motor skills - how to dress, eat, shave, and walk down a hall without bumping into walls.

When thunderstorms are approaching, people need to follow a few basic and simple guidelines:

n Postpone outdoor activities immediately and seek cover, do not wait for the rain.

n When outdoors and you hear thunder in the distance, start looking for safe shelter.

n If you see a thunderstorm coming or your hair stands on end, immediately suspend all outdoor activity and go inside a sturdy building or car.

n If someone is hit by lightning, call 911 immediately. Perform appropriate first aid if you can do so safely.

I have always found lightning fascinating to watch, but from experience, I try to do so in a safe location. Using common sense can greatly reduce the possibility of injury or death by lightning.

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