Lightning storms are a dramatic but common aspect of summer weather in the Rocky Mountains. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks reminds recreationists to protect themselves during storms and to remember that lightning kills hundreds of people annually, in addition to starting forest fires.
"Recreationists, especially those who plan to be on the water, need to recognize lightning and thunder as a serious physical threat," said Liz Lodman, FWP boating safety coordinator. "Outdoor enthusiasts can plan to prevent the physical threat of lightning just as they plan ahead to avoid attracting bears to a camp site or to prevent hypothermia."
Boating is particularly dangerous because a person doesn't even need to be in contact with the components of the boat to be struck. "A side flash can occur where the electrical charge jumps from one component of the boat to another, seeking a better path to ground," Lodman said. A human body is often that better path for an electrical charge on a boat because a person's feet are wet and in contact with metal which extends to the water.
"The best policy for boaters is to keep an eye on the horizon and allow themselves ample time to get off of the water and back to camp when weather conditions are threatening," Lodman said. "Failing that, boaters should head for the closest shore and wait the storm out, then travel back to camp."
FWP also encourages people outdoors to be aware of how far away the lightning is. Lightning's distance from a site can be measured by counting the time in seconds between seeing the stroke of lightning to hearing the thunder. For each five-second count, lightning is one mile away. For a 20 second count it is four miles away from the site.
For recreationists not on the water, a good rule of thumb is to take immediate defensive actions if lightning is two to three miles away, such as:
· Avoid water.
· Avoid metal objects such as electric wires, fences, golf clubs, machinery, motors, power tools, railroad tracks, etc.
· Do not use tents, golf carts, small open-sided rain shelters or isolated trees for shelter.
· Avoid hilltops and open spaces.
Whenever possible, find shelter in a building or in a fully-enclosed metal vehicle such as a car, truck or a van with the windows completely shut.
If it is not possible to find appropriate shelter and the lightning is striking nearby, avoid direct contact with people and get into a ditch or shallow depression, crouch down, with feet together and hands on your knees. Make sure there are no metal objects nearby.
"The goal is to make yourself the smallest target possible and minimize your contact with the ground. Do not lie flat on the ground," Lodman said.
Lodman said a person injured by lightning does not carry an electrical charge and can be safely handled to administer first-aid procedures by those qualified to do so.