When Sharon May was 14 years old, she convinced her friend Betty Kearney to come with her to the Darby Girls’ Camp at the border of Idaho and Wyoming.
After lightning struck, only one of them made it home.
Kearney and four others were killed that day 70 years ago near Darby, in far-eastern Idaho.
Lightning deaths have dropped significantly since then. In 1951, the year May went to camp, 248 people died from lightning strikes in the U.S. In 2020, just 17 died, according to the National Weather Service.
“People just didn’t understand lightning the way we do now,” said John Jensenius, a safety specialist for the National Lightning Safety Council.
People often think of lightning danger as it pertains to wildfires. Since July 28, lightning ignited at least 10 wildfires across the Boise National Forest, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The National Weather Service in Boise issued a red flag warning for critical fire conditions starting Thursday afternoon, with scattered thunderstorms and gusty wind in the forecast. Ada County could expect about 200 lightning strikes through Friday, according to the Weather Service.
But Jensenius said he wants the public to know how to stay safe in thunderstorms.
70 years ago, lightning killed five in girls’ church camp near Darby
As a teenager, May was something of an introvert, she told the Idaho Statesman. Still, she was going to a girls’ camp run by her church and invited Kearney, another “wallflower,” to come along.
On Aug. 1, 1951, May set out from the camp with Kearney and more than 30 other girls. She recalled that blisters already covered her feet from her brand-new saddle oxfords by the time they arrived at a wind cave. At the back was a tunnel, she said, only about 3 feet wide. As they crawled through, flashlights in hand, May helped Ora Lee Holst, one of the leaders, who had lost her flashlight.
Since it was drizzling when May emerged with Holst and Kearney, they sat under a huge pine tree, along with a few others, to eat their sandwiches. “It was the tallest tree on that mountainside, we came to understand (later),” May said.
Their leader, Fred Miller, was the last to emerge from the cave. He told them, “Girls, I have to get you off this mountain. … It attracts lightning,” according to May.
In response, “one of the young leaders stood up and dramatically put her hand on the trunk of the tree, and she said, ‘Look how long this tree’s been standing here. It’s never been hit by lightning, and it probably won’t for another few hundred years.’”
“Then she sat down,” May said, “and the next thing I remember is that I was lying face down in pine needles.”
Later, May learned that Miller had performed artificial respiration on her and the other hikers. Kearney and Holst, who were sitting next to May, were both dead. So were three other girls.
May’s arm and legs were burned. On her hip, next to the pocket carrying her flashlight, she still has a football-shaped scar. “It didn’t hurt, and it never hurt, because it cauterized all the nerves — it burned clear down to the bone,” she said.
Thunderstorm cloud ‘like a big battery,’ safety specialist says
A typical home electrical socket has a current of 15 or 20 amps. Lightning is around 15,000 to 20,000 amps, Jensenius said — enough to stop someone’s heart.
A thunderstorm cloud, Jensenius said, “is like a big battery in the atmosphere.” The top of the cloud develops a positive charge and the middle a negative charge. Hair stands up in a storm because, like the ground, it develops a charge opposite that of the cloud above it.
Since some thunderstorm clouds look like anvils, where the top of the cloud covers a larger area than the bottom, the ground underneath might become charged even in an area where it’s not raining.
When lightning strikes, it often passes along the ground, neutralizing the built-up charge. Because a person might be a better conductor than the earth, electricity sometimes passes through humans to continue on its way. So someone can be injured from the electricity passing through the ground, even if they’re not directly struck.
That’s one of the reasons it’s dangerous to be close to a tall tree, even without touching it. If lightning strikes the tree, those on the ground nearby are still in danger. It’s also why livestock often die from lightning — since their legs are spaced far apart on the ground, they provide a preferable path for the electricity, according to the National Weather Service.
Run to safe location ‘as fast as you can’ during lightning
The safest locations are inside an enclosed building or a vehicle with a hard top. Far from an enclosed space, people should run downhill and away from isolated trees or structures. If in water, they should immediately move to shore.
If you have absolutely no other way to avoid lightning and can’t move somewhere safe, Jensenius said, you should stand with your feet touching to reduce the likelihood that a lot of electricity would pass through you. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends crouching in a ball to reduce height, minimizing contact with the ground, tucking your head, and covering your ears with your hands.
Groups should also spread out, so that someone will be able to get help if others are struck, Jensenius added.
If caught outside at all, Jensensius said the best thing to do is “run as fast as you can to get to a safer place,” such as a completely enclosed building or car. He doesn’t recommend moving under an overhanging cliff or into a soft-topped or open car.
Even relatively safer enclosed spaces can still be dangerous, though. Around one-third of the people injured by lightning are indoors at the time, according to the CDC.
If lightning strikes a building, the electricity will flow through its walls, electrical lines and plumbing. That’s why people should avoid using water, corded phones or electronics connected to the wall with a plug. No one should lean or lie against concrete walls or floors, since they contain metal bars that could conduct electricity.
Hearing thunder? Lightning strikes are too close
The tallest object isn’t always the one lightning hits. Lightning starts moving through the air toward an area that has an opposite charge. However, it can respond to charge differences only about 55 yards around it at a time. Instead of heading in a straight line all the way down, it zigzags and sends out little tendrils as it strikes.
As the electricity passes through the air, there’s so much energy that the air can become hotter than the sun, according to the Weather Service. This rapid heating causes thunder.
Since the lightning can travel many miles incredibly fast, and its light travels faster than thunder, there will be a rolling noise when a lightning tendril comes from far away. If the path passes nearby, the thunder will sound just like a single boom.
Because of this difference in traveling speeds between the light and sound, which is about 5 seconds per mile, the seconds that pass between the lightning flash and the thunder, divided by five, indicates how many miles away the lightning struck.
People can hear thunder only about 10 miles away, though, Jensenius said — the same distance lightning can strike from a storm. That’s why the CDC uses the catchphrase, “When thunder roars, go indoors,” and recommends that people wait 30 minutes after they last hear thunder to go outside.
When there were lightning storms, May said she would always have her children come inside until it was over.
“I’m not afraid of (lightning). I just have a healthy respect for it,” May said. “And if there’s going to be lightning, then I know what to do.”