By definition, thunderstorms contain lightning. There are more than 40 million lightning strikes every year in the United States, resulting in more than 100 fatalities.
In Colorado, lightning is the number one life-threatening weather hazard. Over 100 people have been killed by lightning in the state in the last 45 years. In the past ten years there has been an average of three deaths and 15 injuries from lightning each year. The toll is probably higher, as recent studies have shown that many lightning accidents go unreported.
Lightning heats the surrounding gases in the air to around 50,000 degrees! This causes a rapid expansion of the air which produces thunder. A single lightning stroke also contains an enormous amount of electricity, enough to supply power to several homes for a month. The heat and electricity pose the greatest risk to the individual. Most lightning deaths and injuries occur when people are caught outdoors. Lightning also causes many grassland and forest fires in Colorado.
Keeping Yourself Safe From Lightning
- Stay alert for fast-changing weather conditions. It does not have to be raining where you are for lightning to be a threat. Many people are struck before the rain begins or after it ends at their location.
- Avoid being the tallest object in the area, and stay away from other tall objects such as a small group of tall trees.
- Unplug all unnecessary appliances and stay off the phone.
- Get inside a sturdy building. Do not stand by open windows, doors or on patios during a thunderstorm.
- Get off farm equipment, golf carts or other open vehicles. A hard top car with the windows shut is relatively safe.
- If hiking in the mountains, go early in the day, before thunderstorms develop. If caught in the mountains during a lightning storm, go into a deep cave, canyon or ravine, or below treeline in a large group of small trees. Beware of flash flooding.
- Use the “flash to bang” technique. Sound travels about 1 mile every 5 seconds. When you see the lightning count the seconds until you hear thunder. If 5 seconds elapse, the thunderstorm is one mile away. Ten seconds equals two miles and 15 seconds means the lightning bolt was three miles away.
- What is a “safe” distance from lightning? There is no absolute rule, but consider taking prompt protective action if lightning is occurring within 3 miles of your location. Be aware that lightning can strike the ground ten or more miles away from the thunderstorm with blue sky above!
- Lightning may be about to strike near you if you feel your hair stand on end or your skin tingle. Crouch down or drop to your knees, but do not lie flat on the ground.