Photo © Michael Bath - Lightning Photography
First published in The Whistler on October 15, 2013
Lightning is one of nature’s more lethal moods with a savage history in the Mountains — something both residents and visitors need to keep in mind.
Lightning can make a tree explode. Its sudden intense heat turns the sap into steam that can blow the tree apart.
“Never shelter under a tree or group of trees in a thunderstorm” is the official warning – because, as we’ll see, that can prove fatal.
Summer thunderstorms pose a serious hazard for rock climbers exposed to lightning on a wet cliff face, as two of them found in 2013.
After sheltering in a small cave to let one storm pass, they were caught unexpectedly by a second. One climber felt a tingle in his arms from lightning, so they decided to head back down, but their abseiling ropes jammed 50 metres from the ground.
A call to triple-0 summoned a team of rescuers who battled their way through fog and rough country to make voice contact with the lads at 2.15 am.
Fortunately, they had untangled their ropes and made it to the ground in darkness. These two very lucky young rock climbers were able to walk out with their rescuers in the daylight and drive home.
The previous summer a 37-year-old man was hit by lightning while doing the washing up near a window at a YMCA camp in Yarramundi.
Five people were struck by lightning in 2003 while walking at the base of the Three Sisters near Katoomba. A young man was taken from the scene on a stretcher, with burns to his upper body and complaining of neck pain.
Lightning accounts for five to 10 deaths annually in Australia and well over 100 injuries. These figures are likely to increase, according to the Bureau of Meteorology, “with the growing number of retired people engaged in outdoor, recreational activities such as walking, cycling, golf, fishing, and boating.”
So be warned!
About 80 lightning strike injuries a year result from people using fixed telephones during thunderstorms when the phone system may become highly charged near where lightning is striking. Injuries include hearing damage, burns, or even electrocution.
Medlow Bath Strike – 1923
Just before noon one Monday in March, 1923, a thunderbolt struck Medlow Bath after four loud bursts of thunder. According to eyewitnesses, a ball of blue flame, the size of a football, flashed to earth and struck a stringybark tree near Wonderland Park.
“Branches were splintered in all directions,” said one report, “the trunk was riven, and a furrow made in the earth at its foot as if a gigantic plough had passed.
“All telephones in the town were disordered, and many electric lights fused. The post mistress, who was seated in the front office, said the tongues of blue flame flickered about the extremities of all the wires.”
Our Worst Fatal Strike
Probably the worst fatal lightning strike in the Mountains was at Wentworth Falls four days before Christmas in 1859. Five horse-drawn drays had halted near the Weatherboard Inn to set up camp. One party of four men was in charge of three of the drays with their thirteen horses.
Two of the men – John Black, aged 28 and married with three children, and James Fergusson, aged 22, – had just unharnessed the horses and were about to feed them, when a violent thunderstorm came on, and “a flash of lightning of the most terrible character” struck the two men and all of the horses, killing both men and the animals instantly.
According to the report in Sydney’s Empire newspaper, the lightning then passed through the inn without doing any material damage.
“The bodies of the men and animals presented a most ghastly spectacle, the former turning almost black in a very short period.”
Horses Killed in Leura
During a thunderstorm in Leura on New Year’s Day, 1907, tragedy struck a party of five young campers. They were striking their tents when the storm hit. Five of them took shelter under a tree which was hit by lightning. A girl was badly burned and died and a young man suffered concussion when hit by a piece of the shattered tree.
One Sunday morning in January, 1912, a savage thunderstorm hit the Leura Falls picnic area where horses were standing harnessed up ready for their homeward trip. The first flash struck all eight horses to the ground, killing three.
A second flash followed rapidly, killing another horse. Everyone who’d taken shelter in the refreshment kiosk was struck to the ground “and remained in a dead faint for a few minutes.”
The lightning struct a dead tree 10 yards from the kiosk entrance, “splitting it from the top of the trunk to the roots, scattering pieces of tree and singed bark in all directions. It then travelled to an upright post, which was splintered to matchwood.”
So what can we learn from all this? Certainly to listen to the official advice about what to do in a thunderstorm to prevent injury.
Here’s what the Bureau of Meteorology suggests:
Listen to your local radio station for thunderstorm warnings.
Shelter and secure pets and animals.
Park vehicles under solid shelter or cover with firmly tied tarpaulins/blankets.
Secure all external doors and windows and draw curtains.
Disconnect all electrical items, external TV/radio aerials and computer modems.
Stay inside and shelter well clear of windows, doors and skylights.
If the building starts to break up, shelter in the strongest part (cellar, internal room, hallway, or built-in wardrobe) under a mattress, doona, or a strong table or bench.
Listen to your portable radio for storm updates.
If outdoors, seek solid enclosed shelter (not a tree).
If driving, stop, clear of trees, powerlines and streams.
Don’t use a fixed telephone during a thunderstorm due to lightning danger.
detecting distance from lightning
The Bureau also says:
The distance (in kilometres) to a lightning flash may be estimated by dividing the time delay (in seconds) between the flash and the thunder by 3. If you hear thunder, find shelter urgently, especially if the time delay is less than 30 seconds. Try to remain sheltered for at least 30 minutes after the last sound of thunder.
Identify approaching storms by viewing weather radar covering the Blue Mountains.
The Bureau of Meteorology’s radar loop indicates the path of storms which may generate lightning.