Lightning is a danger, even in the Northwest

Lightning is a danger, even in the Northwest

Credit: sbloomer

Fox Island lightning, July 20, 2012



Posted on June 26, 2013 at 7:37 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 8:27 AM

This week we have seen some unusual weather in the Puget Sound area, with heavy rain, wind, thunder and lightning.

As weather gets warmer, people are heading outside to the beach, golf course, mountains or ball fields. And more people are in danger of being struck by lightning.

The National Weather Service aims to prevent fatalities and injuries with Lightning Safety Week 

The NWS says fishing and camping are the top activities for lightning deaths.

Western Washington averages around 10 thunderstorms per year vs. the nation's leader - Florida - that averages more than 200 per year, said NWS Warning Coordination Meteorologist Ted Buehner.

"As a result, people in our area are not very lightning proficient," said Buehner. "So when compared to the number of thunderstorm events, our area actually has more fatalities and injuries per event than in Florida."

"Knock on wood, we have not had any lightning fatalities in Washington since 1996," said Buehner.

Washington averages one lightning-caused death every five years, but we average several injuries per year.

The best way for you to protect yourself against lightning injury or death is to monitor the weather and postpone or cancel outdoor activities when thunderstorms are in the forecast. Lightning can strike from 10 miles away, so if you can hear thunder, you are in danger of being struck by lightning.

The only safe places to be during a thunderstorm are in a building with four walls and a roof or in a car. A hut, cabana, tent, or other rain shelter will not protect a person from being struck by lightning.

So what should you do in the event of a thunderstorm? If you hear thunder, take cover. At least 10 percent of lightning occurs without visible clouds in the sky.

Lightning is a threat if:

  • You see lightning or hear thunder
  • You hear loud static on your AM radio
  • You hear buzzing sounds on radio antennas
  • Mastheads begin to glow

Use the 30-30 rule where visibility is good and there is nothing obstructing your view of the storm. When you see lightning, count the time until you hear thunder. If that time is 30 seconds or less, the thunderstorm is within 6 miles of you and is dangerous. Seek shelter immediately.

Also, avoid being in, or near, high places. You should also stay away from open fields, isolated trees, baseball dugouts, communications towers and high poles, metal fences and water.

If you are caught outdoors during a thunderstorm and there is no shelter nearby, find a low spot away from trees, fences and poles. If you are in the woods take shelter under the shorter trees. If you are in a boat or swimming, get to land and find shelter immediately.

If you feel your skin tingle or your hair stand on end, minimize your contact with the ground by crouching in the "baseball catcher's position" on the toes of your feet. Place your hands over your ears and put your head between your legs.

Safe and Unsafe Buildings

A safe shelter is a building with electricity and/or plumbing or a metal-topped vehicle with windows closed. Picnic shelters, dugouts, small buildings without plumbing or electricity are not safe.

Key Indoor Safety Tips

  •     Stay off corded phones. You can use cellular or cordless phones.
  •     Don't touch electrical equipment or cords.
  •     Avoid plumbing. Do not wash your hands, take a shower or wash dishes.
  •     Stay away from windows and doors, and stay off porches.
  •     Do not lie on concrete floors or lean againt concrete walls.

Bring in your pets

Dog houses are not safe shelters. Dogs that are chained to trees or on metal runners are particularly vulnerable to lightning strikes.

Protect your personal property

Lightning generates electric surges that can damage electronic equipment some distance from the actual strike. Typical surge protectors will not protect equipment from a lightning strike. The American Meteorological Society has tips for protecting your electronics from lightning. Do not unplug equipment during a thunderstorm as there is a risk you could be struck.

How lightning enters a structure

There are three main ways lightning enters structures: a direct strike, through wires or pipes that extend outside the structure, and through the ground. Once in a structure, lightning can travel through the electrical, phone, plumbing, and radio/television reception systems. Lightning can also travel through any metal wires or bars in concrete walls or flooring. 


Safe and unsafe vehicles

A safe vehicle is any fully enclosed metal topped vehicle, such as a hard topped car, minivan, bus, truck, etc. If you drive into a thunderstorm, slow down and use extra caution. If possible, pull off the road into a safe area, Do NOT leave the vehicle during a thunderstorm.

Unsafe vehicles include convertibles, golf carts, riding mowers, open cab construction equipment and boats without cabins.

While inside a safe vehicle, do not use electronic devices such as radio communications during a thunderstorm. Lightning striking the vehicle, especially the antenna(s), could cause serious injury if you are talking on the radio or holding the microphone at the time of the flash. Emergency officials such as police officers, firefighters and security officers should be extremely cautious using radio equipment when lightning is in the area.

Common scenarios

The National Weather Service offers a few common outdoor scenarios with suggestions on how to safely respond to the lightning threat.

Coach of outdoor sports team

Your little league team has an evening game at the local recreational park. The weather forecast calls for partly cloudy skies, with a chance of thunderstorms by early evening. When you arrive at the park, you notice the only safe buildings are the restrooms. Shortly after sunset, the sky gets cloudy and you see bright flashes in the sky.

What should you do? Get everyone into vehicles or the restrooms. Do NOT stay in the dugouts; they are not safe during lightning activity. Once in a safe place, wait 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder before resuming play.

At the beach/lake

Your family plans to go to the beach today. The weather forecast calls for a nice morning followed by a 30 percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms. When you get to the beach, you see that the only nearby structures are open-sided picnic shelters. The parking lot is a 5 minute walk from the beach. By early afternoon skies are darkening and you hear distant thunder.

What should you do? Go to your car. Do NOT seek shelter under the beach picnic shelters. Wait 30 minutes until after the last rumble of thunder before going back to the beach.

Camping and other wilderness activities

You're cooking dinner on the camp stove when you hear distant rumbles of thunder. Your tent and a large open sided picnic shelter are nearby. Your vehicle is about quarter of a mile away parked at the trail head.

What should you do? Go to your vehicle. The tent and picnic shelter are NOT a safe places. Wait 30 minutes until after the last rumble of thunder before going back to the campsite. For those who cannot get to a vehicle, here are tips from the National Outdoor Leadership School on what to do in the back country, in a canoe, etc., as a last resort. 

More information

NWS Lightning safety