Lightning Safety

Lightning safety is of utmost importance in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. Many people have been struck and killed by lightning over the years, and Colorado is one of the top ten states for such fatalities.

Fortunately, you can decrease the likelihood of being struck by being aware of these safety precautions.

First off, pay attention to the weather. When clouds start to form, it’s time to start thinking about curtailing your outdoor activity. Remember that if you can hear thunder, even though it might seem far away, you are within striking distance. Your best defense is to pay attention to the weather and head indoors when thunderclouds form. Stay inside until 30 minutes after the last thunder or lightning.

Estes Park weather in the summer used to be fairly predictable: sunny in the morning and evening, with a brief afternoon thunderstorm in between. This pattern seems to have been disrupted in the past few years (I suspect global warming), but it’s still a good idea to plan most of your outdoor activity for the morning, and to make sure that you are below treeline come afternoon.

The areas where you are most vulnerable include:

  • Open areas, such as those above treeline or on a golf course
  • Under a single tree
  • Under a picnic shelter, canopy, or rock ledge
  • Near metal, water, or electrical equipment

The best places to be during a thunderstorm are:

  • In a building or a car with the windows closed
  • In a densely forested area away from any especially tall trees

If you are caught out in the open during a thunderstorm, try to reach shelter. If this is not possible, and the storm is very close (especially if there are popping or crackling sounds in the air or your hair is standing up on its own) you should:

  • Drop anything that is electronic or made of metal (including backpacks with metal parts)
  • Crouch low with just your feet touching the ground
  • Put your hands over your ears to minimize damage to hearing caused by thunder
  • If in a group, spread out at least 15 feet apart

There is a good survival rate for lightning strikes, especially if medical care is given immediately. Victims are safe to handle; the charge does not remain in their body. If a member of your party is struck, give first aid or seek medical help immediately. Lightning can strike twice in the same place, though, so don’t ignore your own safety if helping someone else.

While these lightning safety tips will minimize your chances of being struck, they won’t guarantee it altogether – lightning has been known to strike out of a clear blue sky. In that case, I think the universe may be trying to tell you something!

For further reading, see:

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
National Lightning Safety Institute

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