2 women killed as violent storm sparks SoCal fires

By: Asspciated Press
By: Asspciated Press

Lightning and a wind-blown tree killed two women in separate incidents Wednesday as unusual June thunderstorms unleashed scattered downpours across Southern California and ignited wildland blazes with lightning strikes.

Dozens of small fires had erupted by evening as a slew of lightning hit the region, most heavily in San Bernardino County.

One of the bolts hit and killed a 40-year-old woman as she was standing under a tree in a Fontana neighborhood, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles.

Police said residents found her face down on the sidewalk after hearing two claps of thunder -- one that killed the woman and another that damaged concrete 25-30 feet away. Her name has not been released.

"She was hit with a very significant jolt of lightning that left a gaping hole in her neck," Fontana police Sgt. Jeff Decker said. "It burned down her body and blew out the bottom of her shoes," Decker said. "Her upper body clothing was blown about 30 feet away from her body."

Hours earlier another woman, 31-year-old Elena Martinez, died after a wind-blown tree crushed her car as she drove in the San Bernardino Mountains during a thunderstorm, said Big Bear Lake fire spokeswoman Michelle Caldwell. The large pine tree, rooted near the roadside, snapped about halfway up its trunk and took down electrical lines.

Four young men were burned when a bolt of lightning hit a chainlink fence and jumped to a large rock where they were sitting in San Bernardino, city fire officials said. They suffered minor burns on their backs and were taken to a hospital as a precaution, Battalion Chief Steve Cobb said.

The injuries and fatalities came amid a busy day for firefighters dealing with lightning-caused blazes, none of which threatened any structures.

At least 19 small fires erupted in the San Bernardino National Forest, from the rugged San Bernardino Mountains to near Idyllwild in the San Jacinto Mountains to the southeast, said forest spokesman John Miller.

A lightning-sparked fire burned to the southwest in the Cleveland National Forest's Santa Ana Mountains and another fire broke out near a golf course in the foothills of the Angeles National Forest in San Dimas.

The largest San Bernardino National Forest fire burned about 150 acres above the city of Highland, and firefighters expect to contain it Wednesday night with the help of the wet weather.

Another blaze to the north below the mountain community of Running Springs closed State Highway 330 briefly before it was contained at less than an acre when it started to rain.

At least 15 more lightning-sparked fires started Tuesday in remote sections of the Angeles National Forest, though none were burning near structures, U.S. Forest Service Spokesman Stanton Florea said. The forest saw some 400 lightning strikes Wednesday.

The weather disturbance followed electrical storms last weekend that sparked a fire in the San Bernardino forest.

"We're still early in the year," Miller said. "We're looking at this as really being unusual to have two significant lightning storms in a matter of days. Normally we see this activity in July and August."

National Weather Service meteorologist James Oh said he recorded hundreds of lightning strikes in San Bernardino County on Wednesday afternoon, at least one every minute for a couple of hours.

"It's perfect weather for a strong winter storm," Oh said. "If it happened in January you'd get 4 or 5 inches of rain. But because it's happening now, it's drier and you get lightning instead of rain."

The concentration of lightning strikes is caused by a huge, cold air mass off the coast that is moving slowly inland, pushing a band of turbulence and thunderstorms across Southern California, Oh said.

"There were a lot of reports of lightning hitting the ground," he said. "This type of situation is very dangerous if you're in an open field and people shouldn't stand under trees."

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