Even though summer is coming to an end, lightning remains an ongoing risk. Grand Canyon National Park published reports that between 1997 and 2000, there were 104,294 strikes in the canyons. Before embarking on your adventure, it is important to prepare yourself to avoid such risk. Below are some key things to note to prevent the risk of lightning strike.
- Know your local weather patterns. Seek a low-risk area for shelter when you see lightning or hear thunder. Lightning can strike whenever the time from the lightning flash to the thunder crash is less than 30 seconds
- Remember lightning can strike even when it is not raining and when there are no clouds visible in the sky
- Avoid exposed areas during potential storms, such as creeks, cracks, crevices, ridges, towers/high places, open water, isolated tall objects, and opening of caves or buildings
- Get low and sit or squat in a way that will decrease your ground-contact footprint. Although its effectiveness questionable, sitting on an insulator like ensolite, a rope or other padding can’t hurt.
- The risk of a strike increases as the time interval shortens. Estimating the distance from lightning by dividing the time interval bin seconds from the flash and crash (by 5 for m & 3 for km) is simple but not terribly accurate. The National Lightning Safety Institute’s 30/30 rule is often an impractical guideline for backcountry use.
- Spread the group out but maintain visual contact if possible to avoid a multiple-casualty strike
- If you can get to an area of lower risk, keep moving toward it. Inside your vehicle is safest.
Scene size-up is particularly important when responding to lightning injury. Hilltops or cliff faces may be especially dangerous to approach. Look for other patients as 10% of lightning injuries involve two or more people. 25% of survivors develop long-term physical or psychological problems, such as chronic pain or depression.
- Initiate immediate basic/advanced life support
- Treat what you see:
- Cardiopulmonary arrest – Lightning can induce cardiac arrest. Pulse often returns spontaneously if heart damage is minimal. If it does not, immediate cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and positive pressure ventilation (PPV) can be life-saving
- Blunt or penetrating trauma – Rare but possible, the force of a direct strike or near miss may cause significant blunt trauma including ruptured organs and broken bones
- Neurological impairment – Many patients experience loss of consciousness, amnesia, numbness, tingling and weakness
- Burns – Most burns are superficial. Less than 5% of patients experience more serious, deep burns
Bonus: What states experience the most fatalities from lightning strikes?
According to NOAA Technical Memorandum NWS SR-193, Florida has by far experienced the most fatalities in the U.S. with 345 deaths between 1959-1994 in Storm Data. Here are the other 9 states with the most deaths by lightning strike.
Number of Deaths
Much of this information comes from the The Field Guide of Wilderness & Rescue Medicine. The recently revised textbook, printed on water and tear-resistant paper, serves as a great reference guide for those well-versed in wilderness medical emergencies.