Lightning poses serious danger during monsoon season

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By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck

PHOENIX -- Everyone looks forward to the summer monsoon storms, but those storms can pack a powerful and even deadly punch.

Lightning is the second leading cause of death associated with thunderstorms, second only to flash flooding.

So far, three people have been struck and killed by lightning in Arizona. The most recent was at a scenic overlook in Northern Arizona. 

Weather chasers of course live to capture that flash of light on camera but have to understand the risk.

“I am actually really afraid of lightning,” said seasoned storm chaser Michael Olbinski. “There is a real adrenaline rush associated with photographing lightning.”

Olbinski drove some 7,000 miles last summer chasing weather and has already racked up another 2,700 so far this summer. Still, he says he makes a point of keeping his passion in check.

“There’s this balance of, I really want this amazing shot and I don’t want to get struck by lightning,” said Olbinski, who will often set up his camera and operate it remotely from inside his car. “One time I was sitting there and it seemed like the bolt hit right in front of the car. It was really close and I was really excited but it was also pretty freaky.”

Last year Arizona had about half a million cloud to ground lightning strikes. That’s nothing compared to Texas and its 2.5 million. Still, it is our lightning that attracts people from all over the world to witness.

“Last summer I met a guy from Germany. He was here for two weeks by himself just to shoot lightning,” said Olbinski.

Meteorologist Gary Woodall with the National Weather Service in Phoenix explains our thunderstorm season is brief compared to other states but our lightning bolts are much more bold and beautiful.

“Usually the storms here have a high cloud base and usually there aren’t other low clouds blocking our view,” said Woodall. “Southeastern storms might have just as much lightening but our visibility is so good.”

Watching the light show in the sky can be breathtaking but it can also be dangerous. Already, 14 people have been killed so far this year nationwide; three in Florida and three in Arizona, two states known for their light shows.

“Some people might think they are a safe distance away but they are not. Lightning can strike five to 10 miles away from rain,” said Woodall. “If you are close enough to a storm to hear thunder then you are probably within range to be struck by lightning, so best to move to a safer location.”