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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Issue Date: August 16, 2018

Lightning Rods

By Jane Thibodeau Martin,



**********

Last week I did road trips to Peshtigo and back and also to Oregon, WI. During these drives I was looking at the few remaining old traditional wooden barns like the one that was on my parent's rural property when they bought it around 1956. The barn was in pretty poor condition already then but I remember climbing up on its roof (something that was probably done in stealth, since it was a really high roof.)

One of the old barns I saw on my drive was of very similar design and in rather decrepit condition, but on its roof were three equally spaced lighting rods with glass balls " and I suddenly remembered this feature from my childhood barn and house as well. The question it caused me to ponder was why you no longer see lightning rods on barns or houses.

I was not alone with this question since there were dozens of on-line responses to various people asking why lightning rods are no longer used. It was very interesting to read through them and here is what I learned.

Most tower and "skyscraper" buildings (and churches with steeples) do still have lightning protection although it doesn't look like what I remember. That's because such tall buildings are at much higher risk of getting hit by lightning. But barns, and residences no longer have it for the two factors we weigh all the time around safety " probability (risk of something happening,) and cost. Most experts say that unless your house is high on a hill, the tallest building around, or located in the middle of flat terrain where it is the only structure for a long distance, you just aren't likely to ever experience a lightning strike on your house. If you are still worried, a member of the "Lightning Protection Business Alliance" will sell you a residential system for somewhere between $2500 and $5000; depending on how safe you want to be.

It stands to reason that if lightning strikes were a huge risk our homeowner's insurance would require or strongly incentivize such systems, but most don't. I found on-line estimates of a 3% annual discount for installation of a lighting protection system " and that kind of savings would take a century to "pay for itself."

Another comment led me to a website where old lighting rods and the glass balls on them are for sale for those restoring an old house to "original" condition. The glass balls retail for about $22 on this site and the rods (or "finials") for around $36. The explanation I read for the balls was that if one exploded off the rod that would have been a tipoff that the rod had been hit and safely conducted the strike to ground as designed. One piece also said the color of the balls varied by manufacturers of lighting systems, and was a sort of advertisement for their brand.

I developed a powerful respect for lightning living in Oklahoma, where severe storms are common. One night an unusually bad one rolled over our house, with one particular bolt shaking our house and so close by that it sounded like it had struck in our yard. It was a scary and sleepless night.

The next morning I went outside and slipped through our fence to feed our neighbor's horse, "Lucky" since his family was traveling. He didn't meet me at the fence line as usual, and looking around I saw him lying about 100 feet away in the pasture, not moving. An awful feeling came over me and I was praying that he was okay as I walked toward him. Unfortunately he was dead. I looked him over and couldn't find a mark on him like I'd expect from a lightning strike, so I thought maybe someone had shot him and he'd fallen over on the side with the bullet wound.

I called my horse vet to come and take a look, since I wanted to be sure of my facts when I had to inform his owner that the healthy young horse just back from the trainer she'd left in my care was dead.

The vet lifted the upper hind leg and showed me that the inside of Lucky's rear leg artery was blown wide open and bloodless. It was lightning that had executed poor Lucky, possibly by jumping from the nearby wire fence. The vet's only comfort to me was that the horse had probably died instantly, and that Lucky was the third lightning killed horse he'd had a call about that weekend. Lucky's owner usually left him in a pasture that had no trees or buildings in it, and he was the highest point on that land when the storm rolled over us.

When there is active lightning, I take shelter. I am not tempted to "run out for just a minute" to shut the windows of the car sitting in the driveway, or anything else. Seeing what happened to the horse was enough to put respect for the hazards of lighting in my personal value system.

It makes sense that a century ago people were willing to do almost anything to protect their barns " which were their livelihood; or their homes in a time when modern firefighting systems, structures and equipment were not available. It was also probably a time when homeowner's insurance was not available, much less required. So in the old days you put your faith in a few lightning rods with their glass balls on the roof, and some prayer.

I'm not much of a one for antique shopping, but thinking about those old lightning rods got me thinking that one might make a nice flower garden addition. Next time I'm out "junkin" I might start looking.



You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: Janiethibmartin@gmail.com.


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