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Thursday, April 2, 2015

When Lightning Strikes!

On Tuesday afternoon, around 4:20 pm, lightning struck in the Washington Park Arboretum. The shattered spire of a stump, on the right, is all that remains standing of a mature Grand Fir tree. The park staff said the tree was most likely over 120 feet tall. Large pieces of the tree were thrown up to 100 feet away and many were driven into the ground, like the 6 foot long piece on the left.

The staff estimates the complete radius of the blast zone at 500 feet. Pieces of tree where blown in all directions, although the majority of the debris flew to the north. 

The dozens of fragments of the trunk are generally bare of bark and mostly free of branches. 

When the tree exploded the branches and bark must have separated from the tree first. 

Surprisingly, this was the only charred piece of the tree I found. Evidently the moisture in the tree kept it from catching fire. The residual scent in the air is not smoke but rather the aromatic smell of freshly cut wood.

A man, who was walking in Interlaken Park at the time of the strike, said it was the loudest noise he had ever heard. He said it wasn't just a bang but a long crackling sound. His partner said she screamed. 

A woman who was looking at the debris yesterday, said her husband who was at their home nearby when the lightning struck, got on the ground and their dog got under him.

I was in Interlaken Park at the time. Thinking I might minimize my exposure I changed my route to stay under the cover of the trees. After seeing what the lightning did to this tree it is obvious that trees provide no protection. In fact the tree exploded into dozens, if not hundreds, of wooden missiles.

A few years ago while hiking with my son in New Mexico we were caught in a lightning storm. The local Boy Scout experts taught us to squat down into a ball, balanced on our toes. This looks a little strange, but it maximizes your distance from the lightning and minimizes your exposure, even so there are no guarantees.

We are lucky to live in the northwest where our weather is generally mild and easily endured. The truth is nature's power reminds us that we are fragile and not actually in control. Luckily, there were no related injuries.

If you are interested in seeing the power of lightning first hand, the debris is being left in place for observation and research purposes, just a couple of hundred yards west of the Don Graham Visitor Center.

Update: I suspect the helicopter, hovering over Montlake on Wednesday, was taking a photograph or video of the tree for KOMO News. Click Here to see the aerial view and to read more about how the lightning boiled the sap into steam which caused the tree to explode.

Have a safe day around Union Bay…where nature goes wild in the city!



  1. This is possibly the best photo essay I've seen on the power of lightning. I can't imagine the energy that hit this tree and shattered its pieces over a 500-foot blast zone, making spears out of whole sections of trunk. What a vivid reminder to take electrical storms seriously. Thanks for the great coverage, Larry.

  2. Thank you. I can't even imagine what it would have been like to see it happen. Just viewing the debris is awe-inspiring.

  3. Bless you for enlightening us about what really happened here. I distress when I see people huddling under trees during an electric storm.

    1. I can see now that looking to the trees for protection from lightning does not make sense, but I do think it is a natural instinct. Most creatures move into the brush and trees when startled or looking for safety. It is only through logic and learning that we can overcome our instincts.