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A killer bolting out of the blue

Times Staff Writer

FOR the Boy Scouts this summer, lightning struck twice.

In late July, Scouts from St. Helena, Calif., were huddled beneath a tarp in Sequoia National Park during a sudden hail storm when a bolt of lightning hit their hastily strung shelter. A Scout and a leader were killed, and six others were injured.

Five days later, Scouts from Salt Lake City climbed into sleeping bags in a corner of a three-sided log shelter in the midst of a thunderstorm in Utah's Uinta Mountains when lightning struck a nearby tree and then either flashed through the air or streaked through the ground into the structure, killing an Eagle Scout and injuring three others.

While both troops mistakenly followed the understandable, if not natural, tendency to seek shelter from rain and hail — instead of protecting themselves against lightning — lightning safety experts say the twin tragedies underscore a basic truth: There is no safe place to be outdoors in a lightning storm.

Compounding the problem is the fact that most people vastly underestimate the danger of lightning. Lightning kills 75 people a year on average in the United States and injures 500 to 700 more, making it more deadly than hurricanes or tornadoes and far more common than people imagine. In most parts of the country, lightning likely strikes the ground 4,000 to 6,000 times a year within 10 miles of recreation facilities such as golf courses, neighborhood swimming pools and rec centers.

Lightning is "so random and arbitrary and capricious and unpredictable," said Richard Kithil Jr., head of the nonprofit National Lightning Safety Institute, that "there is an element where 100% of safety is impossible."

On the day that members of Troop 7001 moved along the John Muir Trail on the seventh day of a nine-day hike to Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental United States, 416 lightning strikes had struck the ground within 15 miles of the mountain, according to data from ground sensors recorded by the National Lightning Detection Network run by Vaisala Inc. in Tucson.

Although lightning had been flashing throughout the afternoon, the Scouts had encountered hardly any rain until they suddenly found themselves in a storm of pea-sized hail minutes before the lightning struck, said Alexandra Picavet, a ranger and spokeswoman for Sequoia National Park.

Afterward, Picavet told Times reporters that "the only thing that they could have done differently was simply disperse a little bit more, but actually they did as well as they could do in the situation that they were in."

Similarly, authorities in Utah told the Associated Press that Scouts from Troop 56 lay in the safest place possible, referring to the log shelter, open on one side, at Camp Steiner, the nation's highest-altitude Boy Scout camp, 60 miles east of Salt Lake.

Ron Holle, a government meteorologist for 33 years who now works for Vaisala and is considered a leading expert on lightning safety, said both assessments were inaccurate, based on what he'd read of the incidents.

Neither the tarp strung between trees in Sequoia National Park nor the open log shelter at Camp Steiner, he said, provided any protection from lightning. Both were near trees that actually might have attracted the lightning bolts.

A textbook response would have been far different.

"Assume the lightning position when at risk," says the National Outdoor Leadership School's "Backcountry Lightning Safety Guidelines."

"This position includes squatting (or sitting) and balling up so you are as low as possible without getting prone. … If you are concerned enough to assume the lightning position, you should have your group dispersed at least 50 feet apart to reduce the chances of multiple injuries."

The Scouts lying on the ground inside the log shelter were in a particularly bad position because lightning follows all paths down and spreads out across the ground. About half of all lightning deaths and injuries occur when voltage comes up through a victim's feet. If you're lying down with the full length of your body touching the ground, it's even worse, Holle said, and if you're close to a tree, "we're talking about serious voltage."

But Holle said that critiquing what the Scouts did or didn't do is pointless because nothing they could have done out in the open would have necessarily kept them safe. The safest response under such circumstances, he said, would have been to head down the mountain. Or, better yet, not be in the mountains at all that day.

"My recommendation is — just as you don't go up on Mt. Whitney on the third of January in a raging snowstorm, you don't go up in raging thunderstorms at certain times of year," Holle said. "It really is a decision you have control over."

He calculates the odds for an American being hit by lightning sometime in the course of an 80-year lifetime at about 1 in 3,000, with about 1 in 300 odds that a family member will be struck (assuming a family of 10), making lightning a far greater threat in the wild than a fatal shark attack, grizzly bear mauling or rattlesnake bite.

Kurt Wedberg, who runs the guide service Sierra Mountaineering International, is aware of the odds. He teaches his clients to assume a lightning crouch on a foam sleeping pad in worst-case scenarios, and he agrees with Holle that the better course of action on some days is "adjusting your itinerary — and sometimes that means getting off a peak a little earlier."

Wedberg recently left before sunrise with a group climbing Mt. Russell and reached the summit by 8 a.m. "We were down 4,000 feet or more by the time any significant clouds developed," he said.

According to Michael P. Utley, a survivor of a lightning strike who now runs a nonprofit educational organization called Struckbylightning.org, the Boy Scouts hiking in California and Utah made some mistakes when they got hit by lightning, but it's not clear whether anything could have protected them. Arguing they shouldn't have been there misses the point: When else but summer are Boy Scouts supposed to take their nine-day hike to Mt. Whitney?

"Basically, it comes down to this: 95% of the time, we are in running distance to a house or a car," he said of the two safest places to be. "The 5% of the time we are out camping like the Boy Scouts, lightning is like a snake bite or a bear. It is a risk of nature."

Better to teach CPR — "because everybody who dies from a lightning strike dies from cardiac arrest" — than second-guess Boy Scouts in a hailstorm huddled under a tarp, where human nature took them, Utley said.

"If I was in the middle of a lightning and thunderstorm," he said, "I probably would have been there, too."

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