Put Safety First: What to Know When Lightning Strikes


Thunderstorms strike during any season. The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) urges Californians to stay safe when one rolls into their area. 

Lightning and thunder are natural phenomena associated with electrical discharges that occur during thunderstorms. Lightning is an electrical discharge, while thunder is the sound produced by the rapid expansion of heated air caused by lightning. Thunderstorms are common weather events where these phenomena occur, often accompanied by heavy rain, strong winds and sometimes hail. 

Lightning can be a catalyst of intense wildfires, especially in fire-prone California. The average number of acres burned per fire is much higher in lightning fires than in fires caused by humans. 

In 2020, a siege of 12,000 lightning strikes occurred in California in just one week, forcing the evacuation of thousands of people in Northern California.  

In 2022 alone, there were 300 recorded lightning-caused wildfires, and in 2021 there were 581 recorded instances.  

Cal OES along with state and federal partners closely monitor environmental conditions that create major wildfires and preposition firefighting resources in fire-prone areas ahead of thunderstorms. In the case of an intense wildfire, Cal OES coordinates the opening of shelters and distribution of supplies as well as providing myriad recovery resources and programs. 

In addition to causing fires, lightning is dangerous on its own. Data from the National Weather Service (NWS) shows that in 2008-2012, an average of 29 people per year died as a result of lightning strikes in the United States. The most common location for these deaths was outside or in an open area. 

Every lightning strike is different, so treat each situation with caution.  

If you find yourself outside during thunder and lightning: 

  • Go indoors or find a safe, enclosed shelter.  
  • Avoid open or elevated spaces. 
  • Stay away from tall structures and objects that conduct electricity. 
  • Don’t shelter under an isolated tree and don’t use a cliff or rocky overhang for shelter. 
  • Remove metal objects or electrical devices from your person.  

If your car gets struck by lightning:  

  • Pull over to the side of the road, stop and turn off the car. 
  • Make sure all of your windows and doors are closed. 
  • Don’t touch any metal surfaces for at least 30 minutes after your car has been struck by lightning. 
  • Don’t get out of the car until the threat of lightning has passed. 

If you are in a group during a thunderstorm, separate to reduce the number of injuries if lightning strikes the ground. 

Also, if you are in open water, come back to the shore immediately. 

There are additional steps Californians can follow to prepare for any emergency. 

Stay Connected 

Before a disaster or emergency, think about who you will need to connect with if you’re forced to evacuate or shelter in place. Make a contact list with names, numbers, home and email addresses. Your list should include at least one person who doesn’t live in your area and won’t be impacted by your local disaster. 

Get Alerts 

Early warnings could make the difference between life and death during an emergency. Go to CalAlerts.orgto sign up for notifications in your county.