Lightning likely cause of guesthouse fire

By MARK I. JOHNSON
Staff Writer

Last update: 23 July 2003


OAK HILL -- Lightning is suspected with sparking a fire that destroyed a house trailer.

According to Capt. Mike Inglett, Volusia County Fire Services, firefighters responded to Lewis Street in the South Waterfront Park subdivision at about 6 p.m. Monday and found a single-wide trailer in flames.

"The call came in as a lightning strike," he said. "We cannot confirm that, but that is a good guess."

According to neighbors, the unoccupied trailer is used as a guesthouse.

Inglett said the structure was about 50 percent destroyed by fire but the remainder suffered serious smoke damage.

"It is a total loss," he said, estimating the value at about $30,000.

Monday's lightning was generated by a group of severe thunderstorms that boiled up along northern Brevard County and southern Volusia County, according to the National Weather Service's Melbourne office.

"It produced about 1,400 lightning strikes in an hour," forecaster Bart Hagemeyer said Tuesday morning.

Hagemeyer said Monday evening's weather was unusually strong for this time of year. An unstable low-pressure system in the upper atmosphere reacted with afternoon ocean breezes to produce thunderstorms. Those clouds were pushed east by southwest winds and became sandwiched along the coast, causing them to intensify.

"We are expecting that to continue Tuesday," he said.

While storm announcements warned of potentially high winds and hail, Hagemeyer said the most significant threat of these phenomenon is lightning.

"Florida has more lightning strikes than anyplace in the country," he said, "particularly along the I-4 corridor between Daytona Beach and Tampa."

He said this region is prone to strikes because water -- which generates moist sea breezes that interact with the inland winds -- surrounds the Florida peninsula. This mix produces coastal and inland thunderstorms late in the day.

Lightning is not only dangerous to property.

According to a study published on the National Weather Service Web site, more than 1,523 lightning-related deaths and injuries were reported in Florida between 1959 and 1994. During the same period, 53 percent of all weather-related deaths in the state were caused by lightning, more than hurricanes, floods or tornadoes.

Just last week, according to The Associated Press, a Pensacola man died when he was struck by lightning while fishing on a pier.

The last reported lightning fatality in Volusia or Flagler counties occurred in September 1995, according to the weather service. Two men were hit by lightning in Daytona Beach. One, a Canadian tourist, died three days later.

The danger of lightning strikes is something Beach Patrol officials say they take very seriously.

According to Capt. Tony Sopotnick, his officers keep in contact with the National Weather Service for warnings of impending storms, as well as watch the skies themselves.

When it appears a lightning-generating storm may be in the area, lifeguards go to red light, closing down their towers and ordering everyone from the water.

"We used to tell beachgoers to go up on the soft sand, away from the water's edge, but we now recommend they seek shelter in a secure building or their vehicles," he said. "We try to err on the side of caution."

Once a storm passes, lifeguards usually wait 30 minutes after seeing the last lightning bolt before reopening their swimming areas.

"This is one of the hardest calls we make," Sopotnick said. "We give it a lot of attention."

mark.johnson@news-jrnl.com

New-Journal researcher Barbara Buttleman contributed to this report.