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Fire from the Sky « Be Ready Library « American Family Safety
American Family Safety

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Fire from the Sky

Lightning

Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce

It took firefighters six days to gain control of a wildfire that burned more than 70,600 acres in Southern California’s Mojave National Preserve, located about 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles and 40 miles west of the Nevada border.

Five separate blazes were sparked by lightning on Wednesday, June 22. They soon merged to create a major wildfire, which was finally contained at 6 p.m. Monday, June 27. Because the area is remote, only five homes, six trailers, two cabins and a few other buildings were destroyed, but families were forced to evacuate.

More than 900 firefighters battled what Capt. Greg Cleveland of the Southern California Incident Management Team called “the largest fire on record within the 1.6-million-acre preserve,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Thousands of acres of dry grass, juniper, sagebrush and piñon—bushy and overgrown after last winter’s record rainfall—were quickly engulfed as strong winds fanned flames. When the winds started to die down on Sunday, firefighters caught the break they needed.

A Summertime Jolt

The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that lightning causes 17,400 fires each year, with an average of 10 deaths, 75 injuries and $138 million in property damage. We are now at peak season: Two-thirds of these disasters occur between June and August (25 percent in July alone). Most lightning strikes occur outdoors, igniting brush, grass and other materials; 41 percent hit homes and interior structures, zapping roofs, sidewalls, framing and electrical wires with up to 100 million volts of electricity. The overwhelming majority of casualties (89 percent) are caused by structure fires. In fact, a 2003 Insurance Research Council survey revealed that 25 percent of homeowner claims cite lightning or hail as the cause of their losses.

Lightning Fires Statistics

Within the last two months, several lightning-related incidents were reported in national newspapers:

  • On May 10, two separate lightning strikes occurred in Cleveland, Ohio. One bolt hit a high school girl, whose heart stopped. Paramedics performed CPR and were able to revive her, but she was in critical condition. The second bolt set a house ablaze, causing $100,000 in damage to its second story and attic.
  • On May 12, lightning set several houses on fire near Charlotte, N.C., as a cluster of thunderstorms slammed the area.
  • On June 6, lightning struck a home in Reggio, La., destroying the interior and collapsing the roof.
  • On June 26, a 15-year-old high school track star from Roselle, Ill., was killed when lightning hit a tree at a family cookout. His uncle was injured.

How to Protect Your Home

As a homeowner, you can take preventive measures, says Bud VanSickle, executive director of the Lightning Protection Institute (LPI), a nonprofit group based in St. Joseph, Mo., that promotes lightning safety, awareness and education.

“Home and business owners needn’t take their chances with lightning,” he says. “A professionally installed lightning protection system that meets U.S. safety standards will prevent lightning damage by providing a safe electrical path into the earth for lightning’s destructive energy.”

LPI provides a list of certified U.S. contractors on its website. Before hiring a consultant, follow the institute’s guidelines:

  • Make sure materials and methods comply with nationally recognized safety standards of the LPI, National Fire Protection Association and Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL).
  • Only an experienced and reputable UL-listed, LPI-certified lightning protection contractor should install your system. Other tradesmen are typically unqualified to install lightning protection.
  • Check references. A qualified specialist should provide a list of references and affiliations with industry groups.
  • Ask about surge protection. Lightning-induced surges to your home or business can damage electronics and appliances. A qualified lightning protection contractor can provide options for service entrance arresters and point-of-use surge protection devices.
  • Experience counts. Be wary of start-up companies or contractors offering a “price deal” to install, fix or repair your lightning protection system. Compare their prices and quality with other lightning protection companies in your area.
  • When in doubt, contact your local Better Business Bureau to obtain reliability report information on a company or contractor before you hire.

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