By Darrell Todd Maurina
Curry County’s emergency management director worries people don’t take the threat of lightning serious enough.
According to Ken De Los Santos, lightning is among the most dangerous weather phenomena in New Mexico — partly because people don’t know that storms can be dangerous long before rain begins to fall and therefore don’t take cover.
“People think they are still safe because the lightning is far away,” De Los Santos said. “They don’t take shelter immediately. The normal common sense things they should do, they don’t, and that’s how the accidents happen.”
According to a National Weather Service fact sheet provided by De Los Santos, lightning can strike as far as 10 miles away from active rainfall. Temperatures reach 50,000 degrees near the lightning stroke and the electrical discharge of the average flash would power a 100-watt light bulb more than three months.
“Few people realize that the frequency of summertime lightning in areas of New Mexico actually rivals the conditions found in Florida,” according to the NWS statement. “Early and late season thunderstorms generally have less moisture available so rainfall is less intense. People tend not to seek shelter until they get wet, so if they wait too long before moving indoors then they are at a greater risk of being struck by those first several lightning bolts.”
The distance to a storm can be estimated by the number of seconds between seeing the lightning flash and hearing the thunder, according to the National Weather Service, with five seconds between the flash and the thunder corresponding to roughly one mile.
Clovis Fire Chief Ron Edwards said his department typically puts out three to four fires caused by lightning each year, but none so far this year.
For some jobs, getting out of harm’s way isn’t possible.
“When a warning goes up, it’s just not an option for our guys to go in the center room of a building and hide,” said Capt. Brian Bonehill of Cannon Air Force Base’s 522nd Aircraft Maintenance Unit.
“We have to get multimillion dollar planes and trucks and equipment off the field and into safety,” Bonehill said. “Even small hail can cause significant damage to airplanes.”
Even so, the Air Force takes special steps to protect its personnel.
“We have plans laid out of what would happen; if the weather does this, then that will happen,” Bonehill said. “Individuals are not replaceable; if there was a tornado on the field we would get them in, of course.”
For those who don’t have critical reasons to remain outside, De Los Santos said the best action is to get inside a building or vehicle as soon as possible. If that’s impossible, people need to make themselves as small a target as possible.
“If you are stranded outside and there is lightning, you should basically crouch yourself into a ball, sitting on your tiptoes,” De Los Santos said. “Make yourself as small as possible but do not lie down because if you do you’re making yourself a bigger target.”