UPDATE: Storm sweeps through Clark County

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: May 25, 2012, 11:21 PM

 
photoA crowd gathers to see damage caused by a lightning strike to two trees across Mill Plain Boulevard from Hudson's Bay High School on Friday evening.

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David Santos glanced heavenward with a sense of disbelief Friday night at the sad remains of a vanquished Douglas fir tree standing before him off East Mill Plain Boulevard. Under his left arm, Santos held “his trophy”, a 5-feet-high chunk of tree, nearly as tall as him.

“Wow!” Santos, 25, exclaimed to no one in particular. “It’s unbelievable.”

Dozens of onlookers joined Santos to stare at the damage Mother Nature wrought and grab mementos of a once mighty tree blown to smithereens when a lightning strike hit it shortly after 7:30 p.m. The lightning strike’s impact was so powerful that it scattered debris from the tree at least a hundred yards away onto a nearby soccer field and broke two windows at the nearby Marshall House, fire authorities said. Onlookers described the strike as sounding like a bomb exploding.

The lightning strike that slayed the tree and topped another Douglas fir nearby resulted from a series of thunderstorms that delivered heavy rain and hail across Clark County Friday night, causing at least one house fire and power outages for more than 1,500 homes in Vancouver.

A low-pressure system sweeping through the Pacific Northwest was responsible for the nasty weather, said Tiffani Brown, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Portland. Thunderstorms during the late spring and early summer usually are relegated to the Cascades, Brown said. However, on Friday night, Southwest Washington was on the back edge of a low-pressure system, making it more susceptible than usual.

The storms, moving from the north-northeast, began sweeping into the area about 6:30 p.m.

Lightning and hail associated with the storm were heaviest in Battle Ground, Brown reported.

“It wasn’t necessarily strong, but it was prolonged,” she said, noting the National Weather Service had not received reports of strong, gusting winds or large hail. The storm, she added, was not strong enough to require a thunderstorm warning.

A lightning strike set an attic on fire at 1711 N.E. 16th Way in Battle Ground. A person inside the home extinguished the fire before firefighters arrived, said Blaine Dohmann, a captain-paramedic with Clark County Fire & Rescue.

“When we were going to the call, it looked like a war zone,” Dohmann said, noting he witnessed frequent lightning strikes and heavy, sideways rain.

Dohmann called the storm “a little atypical” for north Clark County.

“I can’t remember a storm of this magnitude, going from sunshine to 20 minutes later (dark skies),” Dohmann said.

He could not recall any house fires started by lightning strikes, either. It appeared the strike hit a ventilation fan in the single-story home’s bathroom. The fire charred some drywall and attic installation, but nothing more serious, Dohmann said.

“The homeowners were home, felt a boom and felt their skin tingle,” Dohmann said. Six people were home at the time, but no one was struck by lightning.

No wrecks or grass fires were reported during the storm, Dohmann said. It was possible, he surmised, that the rain prevented lightning strikes from setting grass ablaze.

The storm began moving into the Vancouver area after 7 p.m. Lightning struck two houses on K Street, causing natural gas to start bubbling through the blacktop near 2614 K St., Vancouver Fire Department spokesman Dave James said. No injuries were reported and no evacuations were necessary, he added.

Gas crews were on scene monitoring the possible gas leak and expected to shut down a valve near the house at 2614 K St., James said.

Clark Public Utilities reported 1,586 households without power in Cascade Park and Orchards. Callers also reported power was briefly interrupted in Battle Ground.

The weather system will reappear tonight, Brown said, but will be farther removed. Thus, it is unlikely to be a threat to Clark County. However, people camping on Mount Hood could see storms, Brown said.

Memories of the obliterated Doug fir are sure to linger longer than this weather system.

“The whole house shook,” Adam Rasky, 43, recalled, as he stood feet away from the Doug fir. “Then you come out here and see how much power is in these storms, and you can’t help but feel thankful your house wasn’t damaged by the onslaught.”

Dressed in a light green raincoat and pink rainboots, his 3-year-old daughter, Rafaelle, surveyed the downed branches as the last hints of sunlight waned.

“Daddy, I want to watch them clean it up,” she said, to which her father gently informed her the cleanup would take a long time.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; www.facebook.com/raylegend; www.twitter.com/col_smallcities; ray.legendre@columbian.com