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When Lightning Strikes

What to do to avoid an electrifying experience

A lightning storm that kicked up quickly over Seneca Rocks, WV. Photo by Attila Horvath.

I tend to be the biggest lightning weenie in my crowd, running for the cabin at the first rumble of thunder. Wondering if I was unnecessarily undermining my own machismo, I called Scott Harbaugh, a meteorologist for WPXI-TV’s Severe Weather Team 11 in Pittsburgh and a lifelong resident of the Ohio River Valley.

“No place in the outdoors is absolutely safe during a lightning storm,” Scott says. “If you can hear the thunder, you can be struck by lightning. Seek shelter. Get to a safe place.” Scott adds that lightning can strike as far as 30 miles away from its origin in a storm cloud, even though we can generally only hear thunder 12 to 15 miles away.

“I don’t even stay in my seat if I hear thunder during a (Pittsburgh) Pirates game at PNC Park,” Scott says, “I head to the concourse.” On the trail, a river or a crag, the rest of us may not have such quick access to safe locations, but it’s all the more reason to be resolute about making good decisions to stay out of lightning’s way. Consider these guidelines:

Plan ahead. Watch the weather forecast and plan accordingly. Pay attention to the weather – lightning storms can arise very suddenly. If you do get caught in a storm, wait 30 minutes after the last thunder before resuming your outdoor activity.

Get to a safe location. The safest place during a lightning storm is inside a building. If inside a car, roll up the windows and do not touch the car’s metal body. If outside, don’t be the tallest object around. Don’t be near the tallest object around (tree, fire tower or rock outcrop.) Avoid the mouth of a cave (it will bounce around the mouth of the cave before dissipating – farther inside is fine), get off the water, seek lower elevation. Head for the middle of a large stand of even-height trees at lower elevation. Don’t touch any of the trees. Don’t touch long conductors of electricity, including fences, railroad tracks, natural gas piping or wet climbing ropes.

If you’re stuck … If stuck in an exposed location with lightning striking around you, assume the lightning position: squat on an insulating (sleeping or sitting) pad with your feet together and head down as low as possible. Cover your ears with your hands. Stash any metal objects (jewelry, belt buckle, cell phone, eyeglasses, trekking poles) a few feet away from you. Lightning can superheat these on your person and cause severe burns. Spread out your group. Keep each person 30 feet from the next nearest person. This minimizes the chances of more than one person getting struck and keeps everyone else available to help with a rescue.

Rescue if necessary. If a member of your group has been struck by lightning, do a thorough patient assessment. Always start with the ABCs: airway, breathing, circulation. If your companion isn’t breathing or doesn’t have a pulse, perform CPR. Treat what you can in terms of anything else you find, like burns, fractures or cuts. Get your patient to a hospital as rapidly as possible.

Mike Schiller has spent 10 years teaching about lightning as an instructor for the Wilderness Medicine Institute.

Ohio River Valley weather patterns
The most active months for lightning storms in western PA are May, June and July. Farther southwest, around Parkersburg, WV to Cincinnati, there is a second lightning season from late September to early November.

According to Scott, “Thunderstorms can set up very quickly, just pop up out of nowhere.” Warm air masses in a valley that rise and cool quickly can generate a lightning storm in a previously blue sky in as little as five minutes, though 10-12 minutes is more common. “Just this summer,” Scott says excitedly, “I watched a storm go from clear skies to 150 ground strikes in eight minutes flat.”