"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Lightning 101
Copyright © 2007 by Bill Scifres

Well, here it is April, spring to be sure (though we still could have snow), and the beginning of a time of year when a good snowstorm would seem mild--LIGHTNING!

My earliest lesson in Lightning 101 came when I was a slip of a boy on the Old Muscatatuck River in Jackson County. It was a balmy summer day and I was soloing for bass (or whatever I caught). I was having a good afternoon (those pre-storm hours are like that) when I chanced to notice huge banks of dark clouds scudding in from the west.

I was motivated by faint streaks of jagged lightning that seemed moderate at a distance, but which, I knew, could turn into a lollapalooza, and I could get wet (as if that mattered). The distant rumbles told me a massive hollow beech tree more than a mile downstream was my best bet for staying dry, so I took to the waist high corn and hotfooted it there. The tree was a good four feet in diameter, and inside there was about two feet of space. It was one of my lairs, because there was a two-foot opening two feet off the grounds, and a slight person (such as I) could sort of slide inside where it was always dry. So I did it, just as the first drops of rain were coming down.

In a matter of minutes the storm, worse than I thought it could be, swept across the Muscatatuck valley showing what years before had been considered the wrath of the gods. Broad streaks of lightning crashed into the farm fields and simultaneous deafening claps of thunder covered the hills as rain came down by the buckets. One time I shuddered, as a lightning bolt was so close I thought I could reach out and touch it.

The eye of the storm passed in a few minutes, though, and when it was ravaging the wild land to the east, I had crawled back into the land of the living and was enjoying a beautiful, though a bit soggy, summer day. Standing on the banks of a badly swollen and muddy river, I realized I’d had a ringside seat to a spectacle so awesome that I hoped I would never again see, one that I reveled at observing.

Lightning strikes every day somewhere in the world. More often than we want, it literally “hits home,” at times, with devastating effects.

Robert L. Holle, a meteorologist/consultant, who tracks lightning, says the United States had a total of 756 deaths from lightning from 1990 to 2003. Currently, Florida is the top state for lightning deaths during that period but he notes we are experiencing a continuing shift in the incidence of strikes to the South and West.    

In studies by Holle and others, from 1954 to 1994, lightning was found to have caused damages in the U.S. of $35 million annually, about $1 million per month. Damage was totaled in several categories, including forest fires, fires of structures, and in other areas. From 1991 to 1995, lightning-caused house fires numbered 175 million in the U.S.

Oh, yes. Other states among the top five for fatal lightning strikes included No. 2, Texas, 52; No. 3, Colorado, 39; No. 4, Ohio, 32; and No. 5, North Carolina, 29. In the same period, Indiana had 20, and neighboring states were Illinois 24, Kentucky and Michigan, 12 and 13 each. From 1992 to 1996 insurance claims totaled 1.7 billion in the U.S. and the payoff was $332 million.

It has been said that one has about the same chance of being struck by lightning that he has in hitting the lottery’s Big Casino. 

However, there are some things one can do to avoid this uneventful occurrence. Here's the way I see them shaping up:

1. Be especially cautious of any body of water. I would not be so naive as to tell you to stay off the water on threatening days. The hours before a storm, as alluded to above, are usually a very good time to fish. But get off the water when a storm is nearing, not there. This comes from one who has been involved with storms not once, but twice, at North Carolina’s Outer Banks while wade fishing the Sound. Fish smart when weather is suspect. Remember, you can live without fishing, but you can’t fish without living.

2. Outside or in the woods, take shelter in the second-growth trees, in the understory brush, or in an opening flat on your back to enjoy seeing a storm. Don’t be the tallest thing around you. Stay away from fishing poles and other things that invite a lightning strike. Remember that the subterranean root system of shallow-rooted trees can conduct electricity. I go to beech, sycamore, and pine trees, if I can. I have never seen such trees struck. To repeat, don’t be the highest thing around.

3. If inside a vehicle or house, stay put. If a vehicle is under power, turn it off. The old folks used to say: “Stay away from heat.”

4. Always remember that on big waters weather conditions can change rapidly, and that the force of both wind and water are greater. Never underestimate the powers of either. 

So there you have it. Stay alive this summer.

All columns, essays, and photos are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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