Along with insects and disease, lightning—and the resulting fires—must be classed as a prime enemy of the forests. We have had lightning as long as we have had atmosphere. Its destructive force is ever present during the fire season. Nothing can cause more nightmares and cases of high blood pressure to those responsible for fire action than a lightning storm during the dry season.
Lightning causes about 90 percent of the fires in this area. Only a very small percent of the actual strikes start fires. Many trees are struck and shattered, but no fire results. I have always wondered why more of the wild game is not killed by lightning. I have come across many trees recently struck by lightning and have gone to many fires started by lightning, but I have never seen any evidence of wild game having been killed by a lightning bolt. Nor have I ever had anyone tell me that they had found any such evidence. In the range country, frequently cattle or horses have been killed by lightning. We had a horse killed on the Black Bear airfield in 1957. While wild game doesn't know when or where lightning will strike, you never see mountain goats on the high peaks during a lightning storm.
About 25 years ago, Ray Samuelson, on Pot Lookout of the Spotted Bear District, would each evening report to Les Darling, the dispatcher, whether the goats were on the exposed peaks in his area or not. Ray maintained that he never saw goats up high on nights when lightning storms occurred. We relied more on his observations than on the daily weather forecast.
Some lightning strikes cause destruction over quite a large area. There are times when lightning will strike a telephone line and travel along the wire for several spans, shattering the poles or trees. Lightning may do no damage to the wire, or it may burn the telephone wire completely. Sometimes the ground is badly torn up where the charge entered the ground.
Lightning came in on the telephone line at Green Mountain Lookout in 1938. The wooden telephone box exploded as if a stick of dynamite had gone off inside. Parts of the telephone were scattered all over. Some parts went out through the windows. This lightning did not start a fire. The tower was unoccupied at the time.
Lightning has never hurt anyone inside a Flathead lookout building. I am sure, however, that some thought they had been killed—until they took a better inventory. August Nelson, dispatcher at Big Creek, received quite a shock and was badly injured in 1939 when lightning came in on his desk phone.
Lightning came in on the telephone line at the Schafer office on June 1, 1956. It just about wrecked the place, started several small fires in the office and caused an explosion that blew the office windows out. It happened at 1:30 in the morning. "Red" Rogers was sleeping in the dispatcher's bed in the office. He was badly shaken up and his eardrums were damaged either from the terrific blast or pressure of the explosion. He also received a few minor cuts from flying glass and other objects. He didn't think his injuries were of any significance at first, but his ears have not responded to treatment and his injury seems to be permanent.
Telephone installations at both the Big Creek and the Schafer stations were up to lightning protection standards. These telephone systems were grounded to the water systems.
One evening in August of 1951, during a lightning storm, the lookout from Spotted Bear Mountain Lookout called the dispatcher to report that lightning had just struck the Kah Mountain Lookout. It was a direct hit, but he could see no fire. Les Darling, the dispatcher, immediately attempted to call Kah Mountain by both telephone and radio, but could not get any response.
It was seven miles by trail to Kah Mountain, but we could fly there in minutes in the patrol plane. We still had about 30 minutes of daylight, so we cranked up the 195 patrol plane and took off. As we circled the point to gain altitude, we could see the lookout, Harold Howard, (now a District Forest Ranger in Alaska) out in the yard. He seemed to be very busy doing something. As we gained sufficient altitude to fly over the point, we could see that Howard was busy spelling out "No communications" by using 16-inch stove wood from his wood pile. He waved to us, indicating that he was all right personally. The next day, Ike Weaver, our communications technician, went up and restored communications to the lookout.
Harold Hatton and Roy Root were maintaining the telephone line from Pagoda Lookout to Turtlehead, when a lightning storm came up in July 1937. They started back to the lookout. As they walked along the trail, about six feet apart with Harold in the lead, the lightning struck. Both men were knocked down and rendered unconscious. When Root regained consciousness, he found Harold still breathing, but he was unable to revive him. He went to the lookout and reported to Les Darling at the Black Bear guard station. Plans were set in motion to get Harold to a hospital. Darling went to the lookout to help Roy carry Hatton to the lookout, a distance of about a mile. A doctor was flown into the Black Bear airfield; he covered the 11 miles to the lookout on horseback. It was about 11 miles from Black Bear. Other men came up from Spotted Bear, a distance of 30 miles, to assist in packing Hatton to the airfield. Ranger Jack Shields, "Toad" Paullin, John Pike, and others I can't recall were in this group. By the time they all got to the lookout, it was late at night. The men and the physician stayed at the lookout until daybreak, before packing the victim down the trail to the Black Bear airfield, to be flown to Missoula. Hatton never regained consciousness.