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Published on August 31, 2017

Know your lightning facts. Hint: stay away from trees

Know your lightning facts. Hint: stay away from trees

Hear some thunder in the distance? Consider it a warning.

“The rule of thumb is that if you can hear thunder, you’re close enough to get struck by lightning,” said Deputy Chief David LeBlanc of the Harwich Fire Department.

Since 2007, 312 people have been killed by lightning in the U.S., including six in Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service.

“We do get a lot of thunder and lightning in the warmer months on Cape Cod, and it becomes a concern,” LeBlanc said.

The best thing to do when lightning is in the area is to get inside, he said.

“There’s all kinds of old wives’ tales about lying flat on the ground or curling up in a ball, but at the end of the day you need to be inside and protected,” he said. “You don’t want to be outside if you can avoid it.”

If you’re not near a building, the next best option is a car, so long as it has a metal roof, according to LeBlanc. Convertibles and golf carts do not provide safe shelter.

If you’re at the beach, head for your car, the snack bar or bath house.

Golfers often head for cover under trees, but that’s not a safe place, he said.

“The main bolt will hit the highest point, but a secondary shoot will come off that and will hit something else, and often it’s people,” he said. “So if you were standing near a tree, you could still be struck since you were the next tallest thing around.”

Have A Strategy

Just because the sky is still blue, don’t assume you’re safe.

“People have been struck when there’s a blue sky because lightning is close enough,” he said. “If you hear the rumble of thunder, you should be trying to move to shelter.”

If you’re on a boat that has a cabin, going there will make you safer, he said. If you use a canoe, kayak or small sailboat, be sure to check the weather before you go out and stay ashore when there’s potential for a storm.

“Prior planning prevents a lot of problems,” said LeBlanc.

Parents should make sure their children know to get indoors when lightning threatens.

“Shelter is your first choice, and the second choice is don’t be near anything that’s metal or tall,” he said.

At home, you still can be at risk of being thunderstruck, he said. Stay away from windows, and don’t lean against a wall. Don’t use electronic devices, because they are potential paths for lightning to come into the house.

If you’re with someone who is struck, call 911 and make sure they are breathing.

“Cardiac arrest is cardiac arrest, no matter what causes it,” said LeBlanc. “If they’re in cardiac arrest, the best treatment is early CPR and then defibrillation if there’s an AED [automated external defibrillator] available.”

Don’t worry about touching a lightning victim.

“Lightning comes and lightning goes,” he said. “Your body isn’t a battery. It doesn’t store electricity. They’re safe to be touched. It’s not like they’re in contact with a power line.”

Even if the person is breathing and seems fine, you should still call 911 and have them professionally evaluated.

“Aside from the electrical component, a bolt of lightning is 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, so they’re going to sustain some burn injuries.”

Know The Facts

Here are some myths and facts from the National Weather Service:

  • Myth: If you’re caught outside during a thunderstorm, you should crouch down to reduce your risk of being struck.
  • Fact: Crouching doesn’t make you any safer outdoors. Run to a substantial building or hard-topped vehicle.
  • Myth: Lightning never strikes the same place twice.
  • Fact: Lightning often strikes the same place repeatedly, especially if it’s a tall, pointy, isolated object. The Empire State Building is hit an average of 23 times a year
  • Myth: If it’s not raining or there aren’t clouds overhead, you’re safe from lightning.
  • Fact: Lightning often strikes more than three miles from the center of the thunderstorm, far outside the rain or thunderstorm cloud. “Bolts from the blue” can strike 10-15 miles from the thunderstorm.
  • Myth: If outside in a thunderstorm, you should seek shelter under a tree to stay dry.
  • Fact: Being underneath a tree is the second leading cause of lightning casualties. Better to get wet than fried!