FRESNO, Calif. — A lightning strike earlier this summer in the Sierra Nevada that killed a 37-year-old Fresno man is prompting some to think more about how to stay safe during thunderstorms.
“I don’t think this poor hiker who died was at fault at all,” said Stacy Corless, but his death has still become a “serious reminder” to “do all I can to be safe in the mountains.”
Corless was within a mile of where Nicholas Torchia was struck and killed by lightning on July 30 while he was backpacking in the John Muir Wilderness of eastern Fresno County. A tree beside Torchia was also hit by lightning. Family said Torchia was only near the tree briefly. Trees are among the most frequently-struck objects by lightning.
Several hikers said they didn’t see other lightning in that area that day. A search and rescue leader involved in responding to the call said the fatal strike could have been the first of the storm that afternoon.
“It causes you to reflect,” said Andy Cornett, a pastor who was the first to come upon Torchia on the trail after he was hit.
- How many people are hit by lightning in U.S. and California?
There have been only 14 other fatalities and 72 injuries from lightning in California since 1950, according to data through this spring from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
The National Weather Service reported an average of 43 lightning deaths in the U.S. per year from 1989 to 2018, but just 17 lightning deaths nationwide in 2020.
There were 418 people struck and killed by lightning across the country from 2006 to 2019, the National Lightning Safety Council reported last year. More than 70 percent of those deaths were in the months of June, July and August — described as “peak months” for lightning activity and outdoor recreation. Almost two-thirds were “enjoying outdoor leisure activities” before they were struck, including 20 campers.
NWS data shows the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are one in 1.2 million, but drops to one in 15,300 for the chance of being struck within an 80-year lifetime. Only about 10 percent of people struck by lightning die from the voltage.
While lightning injuries are relatively rare, lightning is still one of the top three storm-related killers in the U.S. It’s important to take the threat of lightning seriously and seek the safest shelter available.
“Each year, thunderstorms produce an estimated 20 to 25 million cloud-to-ground lightning flashes in the United States,” NWS reported in an article about lightning safety and outdoor sports activities. “Each one of those flashes is a potential killer. Some of those flashes strike directly under the storm where it is raining, but some of the flashes reach out away from the storm where people perceive the lightning threat to be low or nonexistent, and catch people by surprise.”
- Danger zones during lightning: Trees, fields, high places, water
The National Weather Service said generally, there’s a significant lightning threat within 6 to 10 miles of the base of a thundercloud. However, “bolts from the blue” can strike 10 to 15 miles from a thunderstorm. “If you hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike you.”
Cumulonimbus clouds that can produce lightning are described as dense, towering, vertical clouds, often with a puffy top.
“Most likely, the most significant lightning is prior to the onset of the rainfall,” said Colin McKellar, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service at Hanford
McKellar also shared tips to stay safe during a thunderstorm, including, “We highly suggest never going under a tree. Don’t do it.”
People should avoid tall things when lightning is present, along with walking into an open space, like a field, or a body of water.
“You’re the only thing around to really hit at that point,” McKellar said.