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Spring storms bring lightning danger; experts stress caution

By Mark Heyka, Chief Meteorologist, mheyka@keci.com
Published On: May 02 2013 10:57:17 PM MDT
MISSOULA, Mont. -

Spring and summer -- thunder and lightning.  It’s a sign of the season and it’s about to roll through Montana. 

Thunderstorms are dangerous.  After all, most forest fires are sparked by lightning.  For others, the danger of being outside is far too real. 

All you have to do is ask Anaconda’s Brandon Nelson.  We caught up with Nelson on a windy day at his Anaconda home.  He keeps mementos from a day when he won a one in 10,000 lottery, and didn’t even know it. 

“It blew me backwards,” he said, as held the tattered baseball cap and shredded golf club he was carrying the day lightning hit him in 2005.  “I had two burns on each shoulder and a burn on my ankle.” 

Nelson was a freshman golfing in a high school tournament.   He doesn’t remember being hit, he only knows what he has pieced together from friends and newspaper clippings.  Lightning hit him on the 14th hole.  That’s 3 million volts of electricity in an inch-wide, 50,000-degree blast roughly three times hotter than the surface of the sun.  It stopped his heart. 

 “The power that goes into it is just crazy,” he said. 

People rushed to revive him, but it wasn’t easy.  Newspaper articles say rescuers were sickened by his skin that tasted like sulfur, a possible leftover from the strike.  Just the same, a stranger got him breathing and crews rushed him to the hospital. 

The story amazes those who hear it.   

 “Lightning kills, it's amazing that anyone can survive a lightning strike,” said Bryan Henry from his desk near the Smokejumpers station in Missoula.  Henry tracks severe weather behavior to predict forest fires.  He is surprised more people don’t pay closer attention to lightning storms.  

Time on the job has taught Henry just what lightning can do.  The National Lightning Detection Network reports an average 20 million cloud-to-ground flashes every year in the continental U.S. and an estimated 8 million strikes a day worldwide. 

That’s why NBC Montana’s First Alert team uses this simple advice – when the thunder roars, go indoors.   

Tall clouds with a cauliflower shape, dark skies and distant thunder mean you better consider getting inside.  Lightning, after all, can strike as far as 10 miles from the storm area and once it hits ground the electricity can move 60 feet away, shocking everything in its path. 

Brandon still has ringing in his ears.  But he still golfs.  And sometimes he looks up at the sky and remembers the day a rush of power found him on a small gold course in western Montana.