A Hokitika man’s ute was hit by lightning which then caused it to burst into flames. Video / Caleb Harris
A Hokitika man considers himself lucky to tell the tale of being struck by lightning yesterday afternoon and his ute bursting into flames.
Caleb Harris, 20, could see dark storm clouds and lightning up ahead driving between Hokitika and Greymouth on his way north to Golden Bay for work.
Soon, rain began to fall at an incredible pace – to the point Harris’ wipers were on full volume.
Ten seconds later, Harris said he felt a big bang. A bright flash appeared before his eyes, the car shook and his ears were ringing.
The lights on his dash lit up like a Christmas tree, and Harris felt a “massive” electric shock. He described it as like touching an electric fence, but worse.
“I’ve done dairy farming so I’ve touched an electric fence before, but this was a good zap.”
It took a second for Harris to process what had just happened.
The lightning bolt had hit the bonnet of his ute. Everything was smoking and he could already spot flames as he pulled over to the side of the road.
He tried disconnecting the car’s battery but it was already too late. With the rain still bucketing down, Harris broke the back window of his ute and grabbed his work clothes from inside the car.
A friend arrived shortly after the fire started and helped direct traffic until the emergency services arrived. They stood back and waited for what felt like an inevitable explosion.
Thankfully, the ute had diesel in its tank, not petrol, and an explosion never occurred. Ambulance staff checked Harris and took him to Greymouth Hospital, where he stayed overnight while they monitored his heart.
With the only lasting injuries being cuts to his arm from broken glass, the young man said he got “a million calls” from family when they heard what happened.
“My family and siblings were pretty shocked, I just told them what happened and they seemed to believe me.”
The ute was completely burnt out after the strike – the doors, windows and seats were charred.
A driver passing by at the time of the strike said he was amazed Harris walked away unharmed.
Joshua Goulding saw Harris’ ute burning and said a man directing traffic told him about the strike.
“The rain had been bucketing down. There wasn’t much lightning actually, so he’s really unlucky to get it where he was,” he said.
“It’s just unbelievable and lucky he wasn’t affected. That’s a relief, it could have ended differently.”
Harris knows how lucky he was to walk away relatively unharmed.
“I’m just lucky to tell the tale, not many people have survived after being zapped,” he said.
Lightning strikes explained
Lightning strikes – of which New Zealand records around 187,000 over land and sea – are perhaps the most dramatic feature of thunderstorms, which are themselves fueled by the up-and-down motions that we associate with convection.
Thunderstorms typically feed off the warm, moist air below them – and when this air reaches the base of the cloud, water vapor within the air condenses and builds onto it.
The action of air rising and falling within the thunderstorm separates positive and negative charges, while water and ice particles within the cloud also affect the distribution of electrical charge.
Eventually, the build-up and discharge of electrical energy between positively and negatively charged areas manifests as lightning bolts – most occurring within the cloud, or between cloud and ground.
The average flash of one of these bolts is powerful enough to light a 100-watt light bulb for more than three months.
The air near a lightning strike, meanwhile, is heated to 27,760C – hotter than the surface of the sun – and the rapid heating and cooling of air near the lightning channel causes a shock wave that results in thunder.
While lightning strikes kill an estimated 6000 to 24,000 people around the world each year, lightning fatalities and injuries are incredibly rare in New Zealand – with just a few dozen claims to ACC over the past two decades.