National Weather Service warns of lightning danger

Dylan Silver
Courtesy Jason Kelley Photography
Jason Kelley |

The National Weather Service has taken this week to warn the public of the dangers of lightning, one of the top three storm-related killers in the United States.

The agency declared June 23-29 Lightning Safety Awareness Week.

“We launch the campaign at the end of June every year because it is severe weather season,” said Susan Buchan, a spokeswoman for the National Weather Service. “People are outdoors more and there are more frequent thunderstorms in much of the country.”

Much of the Sierra Nevada sees frequent thunderstorms through the summer. These storms, though they often pass within minutes, can pose danger for those out in the open.

“It’s not as big of a problem as it is further east, but we do get it and it can be extremely dangerous,” said Gary Barbato, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Reno.

Over the past 30 years, lightning has killed an average of more than 50 people annually. More often than not, lightning injuries and deaths occur while people are outdoors, partaking in leisure activities, according to statistics from NWS.

“When people think of lightning deaths, they usually think of golf,” John Jensenius, a National Weather Service lightning safety specialist, said in a statement. “While every outdoor activity is dangerous when a thunderstorm is in the area, outdoor activities other than golf lead to more lightning deaths.”

NWS found that fishing is the most dangerous, followed by camping, boating, soccer, golf and beach activities.

Being out on the water in a boat is dangerous for two reasons, Jensensius said.

“If you are out in a boat on the water, you’re the highest object in the immediate area,” he said. “Secondly, one of the problems with being out on the boat is it’s going to take some time to get to a safe spot. Many people wait too long before heading to safety and that leaves them in a dangerous and potentially deadly situation.”

Boaters should check the forecast before departing and be wary of building clouds in the sky. Once thunder rolls, it can be too late to head for shelter, Jensenius said.

The National Weather Service recommends people use the weather forecast to plan their outdoor activities. The safest place to be during a thunderstorm is inside, according to the agency.

If you are stuck outside during a thunderstorm, avoid open spaces like fields, meadows or elevated areas like mountaintops.

The last lightning death in California happened last year. Frank Baeta, 71, was camping near trees in Nevada County when he was struck and killed. There have been seven lightning-related deaths in the United States so far this year. July is typically the busiest month for lighting strikes and fatalities, Jensensius said.

The National Lightning Detection Network measured nearly 85,000 lightning strikes in California last year. Still, being struck by lightning is a relatively rare occurrence. The NWS estimates the odds of being struck by lightning over a lifetime is 1 in 10,000.

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