Before a lightning strike missed Terri Stephens by mere feet on Wednesday evening, her objective had been simple enough: run outside, snatch the laundry from a line to get it out of the rain, dash back in.
A flash and a bang changed all that. Stephens, who lives on Terra Avenue in Ashland, was about 10 feet away from a sudden pulse of lightning that stabbed out of a cloud and struck a ponderosa pine tree in her backyard. And the static from the bolt didn’t stop there. It pulsed up the laundry line and blew her right arm back off the line, pulling her along for the ride about five or six feet.
“It was like a bomb went off,” Stephens says.
The strike was one of about 850 that launched out of the numerous gunmetal clouds July 30 and touched down around Jackson County. Numerous wildfires have since appeared in their wake, the largest — the Oregon Gulch Fire — passing the 36,000-acre mark Monday.
After that particular bolt touched down in Stephens’ yard, she ran.
“I was just panicked. My arm just felt like it was on fire. I thought I had blown my arm off,” she says. “It thought it was going to be partially blown off or just all black.
Behind her, fresh curls of smoke hissed off the clothesline. The static sprinted toward a metal awning on her home, cutting the power and damaging the telephone line. Between the loss of electricity and the cloud cover, she couldn’t see the extent of her injuries until she had a flashlight beam trained on her arm. It looked fine. It just hurt. She had it checked out at the hospital and confirmed there was some internal damage to the nerves and muscles. It still hurts, but she’s keeping it elevated and icing it. Her eardrums didn’t rupture and she is otherwise OK, grateful the incident wasn’t worse.
“I am just so fortunate. It could have killed me so easily,” she says.
The scenario was a close to a 1 in 12,000 shot. According to the National Weather Service, that’s the odds you’ll be struck by lightning in your lifetime. In a given year, it’s about 1 in 960,000.
Still, weather officials say not to tempt fate.
“That’s one of our main mantras: when thunder roars, go indoors,” says meteorologist Marc Spilde.
He adds there really is no safe place to be outdoors when thunderstorms are over an area and people should stay inside when they are present.
While indoors, weather officials urge people to stay off corded phones. If you use a cell phone, don’t have it plugged into a charger. Showering, hand washing and dish washing should also be avoided, as strikes can conduct through the pipes and water. You should also stay away from windows, doors and off porches. If that means missing a great show, Spilde says, so be it.
“I think people are just drawn to it, but those are the kinds of things you don’t want to do,” he says.