June 24-30 has been designated as Colorado Lightning Safety and Wildfire Awareness Week.
In the United States, there are an estimated 25 million cloud to ground lightning flashes each year, and each one is a potential threat to life and property. Last year 26 people were killed by lightning in the United States. Although hundreds of others survived the shock, dozens were permanently injured. As a general rule, of the victims who are killed:
• 100 percent are outdoors.
• 76 percent are male.
• 34 percent are standing underneath a tree.
• 24 percent are on or near the water.
Colorado had one lightning death last year, in Custer County west of Westcliffe. Also, there were nine documented lightning strike survivors in Colorado in 2011. During the past 20 years, Colorado averaged three lightning deaths and 15 injuries per year.
Since 1980, the Colorado Springs metro area in El Paso County has the dubious distinction of having the most reported lightning incidents in Colorado, with 10 fatalities and 59 injuries. Larimer County has had seven fatalities and 53 injuries, and Boulder County has had eight fatalities and 37 injuries since 1980.
Because it usually affects only one or two victims at a time, and does not cause the destruction left in the wake of tornadoes or hurricanes, lightning generally receives less attention.
Many people do not act in a timely manner to protect their lives and property, and the lives of others, simply because they do not understand all the dangers associated with thunderstorms and lightning.
You need to become aware of the situations that put you at a greater risk of being struck by lightning, and what you can do to reduce that risk. While nearly all people take some protective actions when rain, hail and wind are occurring with thunderstorms, many leave themselves vulnerable to being struck by lightning as thunderstorms approach, depart, or are nearby.
Lightning can strike more than 10 miles from the rain area of a thunderstorm. That distance is about as far as you can hear thunder. If you can hear thunder, you could be in danger of being struck by lightning.
Inside buildings, you must avoid activities which put your life at risk from a possible lightning strike. You should stay away from windows and doors and avoid contact with anything that is an efficient conductor of electricity. You may also want to take certain actions to protect property well before the storm threatens, such as unplugging electronic equipment.
Also, in the unfortunate event that a person is struck by lightning, medical care may be needed immediately to save the life of the person. Cardiac arrest, heart irregularities, burns and nerve damage are common injuries to people who are struck by lightning. However, with proper treatment, including cardiopulmonary resuscitation if necessary, most victims survive a lightning strike, although the long term effects on their lives can be devastating.
Most lightning deaths and injuries occur during the afternoon and evening when lightning is most likely to occur and when people are more likely to be outside.
The chance that you will be struck by lightning in the United States is about 1 in 700,000 for each year of your life. However, your chance of being struck will depend on whether you consistently practice all of the lightning safety rules.
Lightning starts around half of the forest and rangeland wildfires across the state. Colorado averages around 2,500 wildfires each year. Many of these lightning caused fires occur with very little or no rain. These storms often generate gusty winds, which can fan the flames of the fire.
NOAA’s National Weather Service provides daily fire weather forecasts during the warm season, and spot fire weather forecasts year around for those working prescribed burns and wildfires.
When planning outdoor activities, check out the hazardous weather outlook and the latest forecasts, which include thunderstorm and lightning potential. The website for the National Weather Service office that covers the Four Corners area is www.weather.gov/gjt.
For additional information about lightning or lightning safety, visit NOAA’s Lightning Safety website at www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov or the lightning website of NOAA’s National Weather Service in Pueblo at www.weather.gov/pub/ltg.php.