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Outdoors: Shock and Awe


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Call me a disciple of the “Church of Lightning.” After receiving my baptism in a hair-raising mountain storm, I have new respect for these perilous electrical furies—the No. 1 life-threatening weather risk in Colorado. So with our peak lightning season (June–August) upon us, a little lightning education never hurts.

“No place outside is safe,” says Richard Kithil, founder and CEO of the National Lightning Safety Institute based in Louisville. “There are only degrees of safety.”

Kithil and his company educate both public and private sectors on lightning mitigation. The “degrees” are ways to mitigate—not eliminate—the hazards of lightning when outdoors.

Kithil says lightning follows the path of least resistance. When the average 50,000-degree, 2-inch wide bolt strikes, it’s looking for a place to go, a conductor. Tall trees with their moisture, metal objects and water are good conductors. So are humans with their 65 percent salty moisture content.

The best place to be is a permanent, enclosed building, one with plumbing and electrical wires. If the building is hit, the current will typically travel through the wires and pipes and into the ground. The second best place is a car; just don’t touch any metal in the car during the storm.

Here are common outdoor scenarios and what you can do to mitigate the danger:

Hiking: If you’re in the woods, you’re only moderately safer than being in the open. Stand under the smallest trees. Avoid ridges and hill tops. Avoid caves because they’re moist. Get away from creeks, ponds, streams. Avoid picnic/rain shelters. If you’re with others, stay at least 30 feet apart because lightning can “jump” from person to person. Remove metal. Get in a crouching position, hands on knees, on the balls of your feet, positioned close together.

Hiking 14ers: Be off the summit and below tree line by noon. If you hear thunder while ascending, turn back.
Running: Avoid tall lone trees, metal objects like fences, and telephone/electrical wires. Look for a permanent building, shrubbery or grouped trees, or a ditch.

Mountain Biking: Get off your bike. The 2-3 inches of rubber will do virtually nothing. Avoid lone, tall trees. Look for a ditch or the lowest point you can find. Look for bushes of uniform height.

Road Riding: Get off your bike. Avoid electric wires, metal fences and telephone poles. Look for ditches or trenches. If you can, go to a business to wait it out.

Ball fields/Parks: Dugouts and picnic shelters offer no protection. Get to a car and roll the windows up.
Camping: Your tent and foam sleeping pad offer no protection. Get to your car or the lowest point you can find.

Golfing: Don’t hold your clubs or sit in a golf cart. Get to a building, car or densely packed shrubbery. Remove golf shoes.

Water Sports: Get off the water and to a building, car or area mentioned above.

[tools]
+ AccuWeather iPhone App, free. AccuWeather gives you a treasure trove of climate data in the palm of your hand.

[tips]
+ Avoid tall, pointy, isolated objects.
+ 30/30 Rule: Seek shelter if you hear thunder within 30 seconds of seeing lightning. Wait 30 minutes after the last thunder to go back outside.
+ If with others separate at least 30 ft.
+ Never lie flat on the ground. This exposes your heart to ground current.
+ CPR is the recommended first-aid to a strike victim.

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