CASPER, Wyo. — In the past half century, 29 people in Wyoming have beaten one-in-a-million odds.
From 1959 to 2012, Wyoming had the highest lightning-caused death rate per capita in the nation, according to data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The state averaged 1.25 deaths per 1 million people in those 53 years.
Although Florida by far had the highest number of total fatalities — 468 — it ranked fifth when compared against population density, at 0.78 deaths.
There are several reasons for Wyoming’s No. 1 ranking, said John Gookin, curriculum and research manager at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander.
When comparing lightning strike density across the United States, Wyoming is actually low, Gookin said.
“The problem is that they all come in July and August, and that’s when the whole world wants to get up high in the mountains,” he said. Many people simply end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Timing is a factor as well, Gookin said. Most lightning occurs from noon to 5 p.m., when climbers tend to be reaching the highest places.
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“If you look at the examples of the climbers in the Tetons who are struck by lightning, it’s generally avoidable,” he said. “You time your activities so that you’re not at a high-risk place at a high-risk time.”
On July 21, 2010, 17 climbers in Grand Teton National Park found themselves in such an undesirable situation. Lightning struck and killed Brandon Oldenkamp and temporarily paralyzed all of the other climbers.
A lightning bolt’s effect on the human body can vary, Gookin said. In some cases, it’s a matter of the strike’s intensity — some flashes can be up to 100 times hotter than others.
"Most of the electricity flashes over the surface of our body,” Gookin said. “You’ll get all these steam burns, and it can blow the clothes right off your body. We’re talking naked.”
A victim may also suffer from burns to various orifices such as the ears and nose. And depending on how much electricity hits you, it can stop your heart, Gookin said.
Even if one survives the initial strike, victims face a variety of health issues for years to come.
“The toughest part for people who survive, they get these random brain patterns,” Gookin said.
One person may lose his ability to read while another can't understand numbers or faces unexplainable mood swings.
There are several courses taught in Wyoming focusing on lightning safety. For more information, contact the National Outdoor Leadership School or National Weather Service.