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Thor Crashes the Barbecue

Close encounters of the electrical kind highlight this Fourth of July - and lightning safety

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Photo: NOAA

Well, I sure got my fireworks show on the Fourth!. Little Torrey town had their classic morning parade, then I grabbed the iPod, hydration pack, a couple apples, and took off for a three-hour run atop Meeks Mesa, a high sandstone plateau northeast of town. Since it was Saturday morning, I didn’t get moving very early, so it was nearly 4p.m. by the time I turned around to begin dropping off the mesa edge, jogging back toward home, shower and the annual mega-barbecue at Duane and Donna’s.

As my northern wanderings went south, the scenery changed as well – from bright sun to really dark clouds pouring over Boulder Mountain. Angry lightning pulsed between cloud and cliff rims, lighting up the cumulonimbus like japanese lanterns.

Now frankly, lightning scares the crap out of me, thanks to past brushes. Thor, the hot-tempered Norse god of thunder, and I don’t play well together. Perhaps it’s because he’s always throwing that Mjolnir hammer, the ‘one that smashes.’ As Longfellow wrote:

“Mine eyes are the lightning;

The wheels of my chariot

Roll in the thunder,

The blows of my hammer

Ring in the earthquake.”

So I ran hard, knowing it was a race to reach my truck before I ended up re-enacting Tom Cruise’s run from the alien death-rays in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. I’ve been there before, in the Canadian Rockies, in Zion, in Colorado’s San Juans. No thanks.

By the time I dove into the Toyota, drops were splattering off the hardpan and bolts were already slamming into the flats a mile off. I arrived home in a hurricane deluge of rain and blowing leaves, just in time to turn off all the computers and cower in the living room until the gunshot cracking finally died and I was left with a houseful of digital equipment all blinking “12:00”. Friggin’ Thor.

I wasn’t alone in having a dramatic, electrical Fourth. That same day…

>>A lightning strike at a Lakeland Florida, soccer/volleyball gathering east of Tampa killed one and sent 18 to the hospital.

>>Another strike in Rio Rancho, New Mexico killed one and hospitalized six when a storm brewed up over a 13-person picnic.

>>A notably silent lightning bolt struck a grassy hill in Billings, Montana during Fourth of July celebrations, killing one, giving a second victim seizures, and triggering asthma in a third. Both survivors were hospitalized.

>>The evening before, on July 3rd, a woman camping near St. George in Southwest Utah had been struck by lightning leaping sideways off a tree. She was breathing normally when rescuers arrived, but was hospitalized for observation.

All four strikes occurred in public parks and campgrounds. In distant lands and prior days, a fisherman was struck and killed off Cape Cod, a teenager in Birmingham, England died during a cricket game, and three were killed and two injured when bolts struck a village market in India.

According to the website, 27 people were killed and 302 injured in U.S. lightning strikes last year. Thus far in America 2009, 121 people have been injured and 19 killed by bolts from the not-so-blue.

As a general rule, about 10% of lightning strike victims die. Heart and breathing stoppage is always the reason. Immediate CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is the treatment. While most strike victims survive, many suffer long-term paralysis, memory loss, neurological and emotional problems – not surprising considering that lightning bolts can reach 300,000 volts or more. Burns are also common, particularly around fingertips, on the feet, and around jewelry and belt buckles.

What’s ironic is that lightning burns aren’t usually more serious, since lightning creates flash temperatures of 2500 Centigrade or more, enough to instantly fuse silica sand into glass fulgarites. There are subtle reasons; For example, many lightning strike victims get web-like reddish patterns across the skin, basically light, first-degree burns, from a phenomenon called “external flashover.” Since the human body can’t actually conduct 300 kilovolts in the miliseconds that a bolt lasts, all that excess electricity pours over the skin to make contact with the ground, and the fortunate survivor avoids most of the charge.

While NASA has an excellent article on what happens when people get hit, your best source for lightning avoidance, safety and First Aid tips is the National Lightning Safety Institute. The following guidelines are assembled from that and other sources.

Lightning Avoidance

>>Know the weather report, and always go with an alternate plan. Don’t go purposefully into serious thunderstorm weather. Whenever you’re outdoors, there is literally no safe place.

>>Start your summit climbs and ridge-walks early, so you can abandon the bolt-prone heights before thunderheads build.

>>Don’t get stubborn, summits aren’t worth it. Neither are picnics under dark gray clouds.

Storm Protocol

>>Get away from all metal objects. Remove gear and stash 100 yards or more away.

>>Do not hide under a tree! Get away from high points, granite outcrops, and tall trees, all of which can attract lightning.

>>Do not huddle together! Companions and groups should space out widely so multiple victims can’t be struck. This can be tough when people are scared.

>>Squat or sit atop a foam pad or your backpack (remove any metal stays), to insulate yourself from ground currents. Lightning experts now consider this “lightning crouch” to be ineffective, but anything might help reduce the charge you take.

First Aid

>>Fatal lightning most often knocks people unconscious and stops their heart. Take all lightning strikes or ground jolts seriously. Get checked out at a hospital emergency room, and by a neurologist if referred.

>>If someone is struck and knocked out, check them for breathing and pulse first. Administer CPR and mouth-to-mouth rescuscitation if necessary.

>>If they’re seizing, keep them on their side, and make sure they don’t swallow their tongue.

>>Check for burns, especially on fingers or feet, and around jewelry and belt buckles.

>>Call/signal/run for help. All lightning victims need evacuation. Remove them to a safe place if the victims are threatened, but beyond that, call in emergency medical support and a jeep/plane/chopper. Get them to a medical facility.

Off all natural disasters, only floods kill more people. And as forces of nature go, lightning is the threat that ourdoorholics come up against most often. So don’t get into a fight with Thor, because he’s always looking for one, and once he gets wound up, he’s a real A-hole. –Steve Howe