Summer Safety: Staying Safe When the Thunder Rolls and Lightning strikes

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Colin Grissom, MD, a critical care physician and wilderness medicine expert at Intermountain Medical Center, gives some helpful advice on how to stay safe from lightning while you’re out enjoying the backcountry this summer.

Plan ahead for lightning

  • Before you head out to the backcountry, check the weather forecast for thunderstorms.
  • The majority of thunderstorms in Utah occur between 2 and 6 p.m. so try not to be out at that time. “While storms are not entirely predictable in Utah, they most often come in the afternoon,” said Dr. Grissom. “So if you want to hike up onto a mountain ridge, do it in the morning so that you can be done before the afternoon thunderstorms roll in.”
  • Whenever you plan a trip to the wilderness, make sure your plans include how you will respond to lightning. Share the lightning response plan with everyone in your group.

When is it time to get nervous about lightning?

  • If you hear thunder, you are in danger of being hit by lightning. “If you see distant lightning or hear thunder, you need to get off the ridge and seek shelter right away,” Dr. Grissom says. “If you’re swimming or boating, head to shore immediately and get away from the water. Remaining in an open exposed area when there’s lightning in the area is a bad idea.”
  • Signs of an imminent lightning strike include a lot of static electricity in the air, an ozone smell, nearby crackling sounds or a blue haze — known as “St. Elmo’s Fire” — around objects and individuals. “If your hair is standing on end, it is time to seek shelter,” Dr. Grissom said.

Where should you seek shelter if you’re caught in a storm?

  • Your best option is to seek shelter in a large enclosed building away from doors and windows.
  • A car with a metal roof (not a convertible) with the doors closed can also provide adequate shelter.
  • If you’re far from cars and buildings, you can seek shelter inside a deep cave, far into a dense forest, or in a deep ravine.
  • DO NOT seek shelter near isolated trees, cellphone towers or any tall structures. Tents, shallow caves, and open shelters like picnic canopies and lean-tos should also be avoided.
  • If there’s no shelter available and lightning is imminent, get as low as you can and assume the “lightning position” — crouch down with your feet close together and if possible get on top of something that will insulate you from the ground, like a pack, sleeping pad or coiled rope. “The ‘lightning position’ is a last resort, but it can help you avoid risk of injury,” Dr. Grissom said. “It is also a good idea to remove any metal objects from your body (like rings, necklaces, and watches) to reduce your risk of burns.”
  • If you’re in a group of people, spread out by at least 20 feet since lighting can jump up to 15 feet between objects. This will prevent mass casualties.

First aid for lightning strikes: “First of all, lightning victims don’t carry a residual charge, so you’re fine to touch them immediately after the strike,”Dr. Grissom said. “Lightning often stops the victim’s heart, but if you begin CPR right away or use an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) if you have one, you may be able to get their heart going again. Lightning victims also often need treatment for burns. You should get them to an emergency department as soon as it is safe.”

What areas in Utah are the most dangerous for lightning? “Anywhere that is high and exposed is dangerous during a lightning storm,” Dr. Grissom said. “I think the high Uintah Mountains are especially dangerous because they’re so high and broad with limited shelter. But anytime you’re on a high ridge you’re in danger. The bottom line is, get off the ridge and into the valley as soon as your hear thunder.”