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A look into southern Arizona's many lightning dangers, and how to stay safe

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Posted at 4:12 PM, Jun 09, 2021

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — With our spectacular lightning displays during monsoon, it's easy to see why Arizona is the lightning photography capital of the United States. But as much as we welcome those summer storms, we have to respect the risks that come with them. For example, did you know lightning can strike up to 10 miles away from the nearest thunderstorm?

I recently spoke with longtime lightning expert and Senior Scientist with Vaisala, Ron Holle. He has been around lightning detection data for nearly 30 years and tells me some folks underestimate its dangers.

"There's a lot of situations where the sense is that's it's really not that important, but sooner or later it does, unfortunately, catch up with people," he said.

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Holle also specializes in lightning safety. I asked him if he would agree that lightning is one of the most underappreciated weather phenomena, not just for its beauty, but also its potential to be so dangerous and deadly. His response says it all:

"Lightning is something almost everyone in the world encounters at least once or twice a year," he said. "It's probably one of the most dangerous things that everyone encounters every year. Not everyone has a Tsunami or earthquake, or hurricane, or tornado, but most everyone has lightning."

The majority of southern Arizona lightning strikes occur in July and August, which is typically our more active Monsoon period. That's also when a lot of people are outside hiking, swimming, and doing the usual outdoor summer activities. The reason it becomes a problem is because a lot of times it's not raining very hard when we have lightning. And sometimes, not at all.

"One of the studies I did years ago is the distance between individual cloud to ground flashes is several miles, it skips around, it doesn't go in a row," Holle said. "So you can't predict or identify where that next one is going to be."

Another danger that is becoming more and more frequent is lightning-sparked wildfires. June 5 of this year marked the one-year anniversary of the Bighorn Fire, which was sparked by a lightning strike.

"Normally we don't have any thunderstorms at all during that time of year and somehow this one little weak trough came through and eked out 10, 20 or 30 cloud-to-ground flashes," Holle said. "And unfortunately, everything was extremely dry, and it couldn't be a worse time for it to happen."

Arizona typically has about a half-million lightning strikes per year. So as we head into monsoon, remember the best place to seek shelter from a storm is a sturdy building or metal-topped vehicle. When indoors, try to avoid touching wiring or plumbing. And wait at least 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder before going outside.