After two people died and 10 people were injured by lightning strikes in two days at Rocky Mountain National Park last weekend, the incidents left some wondering if the tragedies could have been prevented.
Because the woman and some of the people injured in the park Friday, July 11, were from Ohio, “they may not have known about the commonly hailed mantra that Coloradans have about lightning threats,” said Richard Kithil, president of the National Lightning Safety Institute in Louisville, Colorado, “and that is, ‘Get off the trail before noon.’”
Since 1959, when the National Weather Service began tracking lightning incidents in Colorado, the state has averaged about three fatalities and 15 injuries annually.
So have lightning incidents been growing more common?
“Quite the opposite,” Kithil said. “It’s going down because of education.”
He said although he thinks the National Park Service could be providing more information about lightning to visitors, the National Weather Service has been doing an excellent job of raising awareness about lightning safety.
A about a dozen years ago the agency started an intense campaign on lightning safety, including an awareness week in June, said Robert Glancy, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder. Since then, he said, the numbers have been going down nationally.
This weekend’s deaths were the first lightning-related fatalities in the park in 14 years, Glancy said.
Kithil said although awareness and education have improved, “I see a lot of ignorance. I see a need for people to learn the fundamentals.”
ZEUS’ TARGET PRACTICE
So what is lightning? It’s not to be confused with lightening (the opposite of darkening), Kithil said, which he saw this week on a National Park sign.
A good way to describe the phenomenon is static electricity of epic proportions caused by thunderstorms, snowstorms and volcanoes. Thunder is the shock wave created by superheated air in the lightning channel.
“Lightning always causes thunder; nothing else causes it,” Kithil said. “Most people don’t make that connection.”
About nine of 10 people survive being struck, he said. Of the survivors, roughly 25 percent suffer long-term effects, including burns, hearing loss and nerve and psychological damage
Men outnumber women 5 to 1 in both rates of injuries and deaths, and July is the deadliest month for lightning across the country, he said.
According to the National Weather Service, the country averaged 51 deaths a year between 1984 and 2013. So far this year, the second death in Rocky Mountain National Park was the 12th lightning death in the U.S. the organization recorded.
“Statistics are elusive,” Kithil said, because the National Weather Service data often comes from newspaper articles, and not all lightning incidents end up in the news.
A quick search of the Summit Daily News archives turned up a 2004 story about a 28-year-old woman who was killed while hiking in the Little French Gulch area near Breckenridge and a 2007 story about a 28-year-old Boulder man who survived being struck while descending Mount Elbert near Leadville.
Lightning deaths and injuries are also sometimes attributed to other causes, like house fires, Kithil added, which contributes to statistics that the institute estimates are 25 percent underreported.
For example, he said, several years ago witnesses saw lightning strike a man driving a motorcycle on a highway near Boulder. The man crashed, and his death was ruled a vehicle accident.
Shelly Almroth, trauma program manager at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, said she remembered a big storm last June when lightning struck the bike path 100 times and broke the belfry at the Father Dyer Church in Breckenridge.
And in 2004, she added, 19 people were struck during a golf ball driving contest in Grand County.
IF YOU HEAR IT, CLEAR IT
Remember that thing about counting the seconds between a flash of lightning and the crack or rumble of thunder to figure out how far the lightning struck from you?
According to the National Lightning Safety Institute, for every five seconds you count, the lightning struck about 1 mile away. But it turns out that doesn’t matter so much.
Depending on your hearing abilities, background noise and the wind and other weather conditions, thunder can be heard from about 5 miles away, Kithil said.
“That’s really close,” he said.
Too close, because according to the National Weather Service, lightning often strikes more than 3 miles from the center of the thunderstorm, far outside the rain or thunderstorm cloud. And “bolts from the blue” can strike 10 to 15 miles from the thunderstorm.
That’s why serious hikers often start mountain ascents in the dark, at 3 or 4 a.m., Kithil said, to get down before a storm even starts.
The key to avoiding getting struck is recognizing the danger early and getting to a safe location. Don’t even think about buying one of those handheld lightning detectors, Kithil said. They are “wildly inaccurate.”
Better to remember: If you can see it, flee it. If you can hear it, clear it.
Outdoor locations fall on a continuum in their degrees of safety, he said. Avoid high elevations like above tree line or on top of mountains or hills. Stay away from water, metal objects, caves and tall, isolated trees, and separate yourself from other people by about 20 to 30 feet to reduce the risk of multiple victims.
People are better conductors of electricity than trees, Kithil said, because human bodies are about 60 percent saltwater by volume, while trees are only 10 percent.
If you can’t get inside a building or vehicle, seek depressions, ditches, swales and other low spots in the ground. Look for shrubs, bushes and dense forested areas.
Experts recommend that you sit, crouch or kneel as lying down increases your chance of being affected by potentially deadly ground current.
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY
The idea that a person struck by lightning could shock or electrocute someone is a myth.
So if you see someone struck, start immediate CPR if you can’t find a pulse. Make sure you and the victim are in a safe location, and seek medical attention as fast as possible. “Lightning never strikes the same place twice” is also a myth. (The Empire State Building is struck hundreds of times a year.)
At Summit Medical Center, about two or three patients are treated for lightning injuries every year, said Almroth, who has worked in the emergency department for 21 years. The center hasn’t seen any so far in 2014.
Over at Vail Valley Medical Center, hospital epidemiologist Jason Moore said the trauma center sees about the same amount.
Lightning victims often have an arborizing pattern on their skin that looks like a fern, said Moore, a physician assistant in trauma and critical care at the hospital for about 10 years.
Patients are treated for wounds where the bolt may have entered and exited the body, he said, and their heart and brain activity is monitored closely for a couple of days.
“This is a big electrical hit,” he said. “You always worry about the injuries you don’t see.”
Lightning can also destroy muscle tissue and cause kidney issues, and those with extensive burns are taken to an intensive care unit in Denver.