Smoke ‘attracts lightning’

2011-01-08 00:00

RURAL people have been warned not to huddle around a fire during storms to avoid lightning fatalities.

Frank Calboutin, a retired technician specialising in lightning protection and a member of the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers, said gathering in groups in rondavels during the storm causes the majority of fatalities in rural areas.

He made this warning after seven people from two families were killed by lightning in Eshowe on Sunday.

On Saturday, eight people were killed by lightning in separate incidents in the rural parts of the Eastern Cape.

“There will probably be a fire place in the centre of the room with smoke drifting up through the tip of the thatched roof and people will probably gather around the fire in fairly close proximity to one another,” said Calboutin in a statement.

He said smoke from the fire releases a stream of “positive ions” into the atmosphere, attracting “negative ions” from the clouds.

When these ions meet they form the main lightning bolt.

He said the bolt travels down the “ion smoke trail”, striking the floor and dissipating into the earth.

“Flashes of electricity followed by the lightning bolt will hit the tip of the house, looking for the easiest way to earth, either via the building walls, and/or anything within the building [human or objects] that it can jump across to from the roof,” he said.

When the bolt hits the fire, it scatters it all around the room causing everything within to catch alight.

Calboutin advises rural people to spread out to about an arm’s length away from each other during storms.

If people are sheltering inside the house, they should extinguish fires, sit on a chair or bed with their feet off the ground, and keep as far apart from one another as possible.

He said motorists are safe inside their vehicles as the body of the car acts as a steel cage and diverts lightning along the easy path around the outside shell.

MEC for Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nomusa Dube has called for scientific research into ways in which government can prevent or minimise the deadly impact of lightning in rural areas.

“Let us have scientific advice on why rural areas are at the receiving end of lightning fatalities, far more than urban areas.

“When we have science-based answers, then we can develop a science-based approach to helping curtail the deaths caused by lightning,” said Dube.

Spokesperson Vernon Mchunu said people like Calboutin should contact the Department of Science and Technology to co-ordinate any scientific information they have to help in dealing with lightning casualties in rural areas.


THE seven people killed by lightning in Eshowe will be buried in a government-sponsored mass funeral ceremony tomorrow.

At the same time, the provincial government will introduce scientists who have been called in to investigate ways to protect rural people during thunderstorms.

The deceased are members of the Mahaye family and the Cele family. One member of the Cele family is in a critical condition in the Eshowe hospital.


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