By Sébastien Lacroix, journalist
Little-known fact: Lightning is more likely to strike in a campground in the Outaouais region, between a Thursday and a Sunday in July.
The Outaouais is the most lightning-prone region in Quebec, followed by Greater Montréal and the Montérégie region. “That’s because those areas are very hot and humid, conditions that tend to bring on thunderstorms. And of course thunderstorms mean lightning,” explains Amélie Bertrand, a meteorologist in charge of weather alerts at Environment and Climate Change Canada.
While the federal department doesn’t keep precise statistics for Quebec, it still records 150 injuries and up to 10 fatalities every year caused by lightning across the country. And 65% of these cases are related to outdoor recreational activities, most of them involving camping.
Since people are more likely to head outdoors on weekends and generally take their holidays in July, often a hot and humid month, this is peak time for lightning.Even though the risk of being hit by lightning is about 1 in 250,000, you still need to be very careful. A lightning bolt could miss you, but strike a tree next to you, split it and topple it over. Lightning can also cause a shock wave with ground currents that can travel underground for dozens of metres or through tree roots and electrocute people.
The worst thing to do when lightning threatens is to lie down on the ground in your tent, since it offers no protection from above or below. As soon as you hear thunder, you’re best to take shelter in a building or a vehicle, if possible, or under a canoe, and stay there until about 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder.
“There’s no shelter that’s 100% safe, but it’s important to put as many barriers as possible between you and the lightning, for the most protection,” explains Bertrand. “If there is something solid over your head it can offer you a bit more protection from a falling branch or tree.”
In fact, you should keep lightning hazards in mind when choosing your campsite. Beneath an isolated tree or the tallest tree around, next to a metal fence or at the top of a hill – they might seem like ideal spots, but in fact you should avoid them.
People in a mobile home or RV will be safe in a thunderstorm, provided that they don’t touch any parts in contact with the vehicle’s metal shell. An RV can be struck by lightning if it is connected to an electrical network or if its levelling jacks are in contact with the ground.
In the back country, you are best to stay away from risky locations like peaks, ridges and high ground, as these are places most likely to be hit by lightning. “A lightning bolt always takes the shortest route to reach the ground,” explains Bertrand.
Environment Canada also suggests that you avoid open areas larger than 100 metres, and look for a downslope or a ravine to take shelter. Groups should split up, to prevent multiple injuries if lightning does strike. You can also consult the Canadian Lightning Danger Map on your mobile device and take shelter if you’re in one of the danger zones marked in red.