Lightning struck at least three houses in Newton County near Ga. Highway 81 sparking two fires within an hour of each other, keeping firefighters hopping Thursday afternoon, according to the Newton County Fire Department.
"Almost the entire department was sent on these fires," said NCFD Chief Mike Satterfield of the Thursday storm. A few units not assigned to the fires were rotated to cover the county, along with volunteer stations, and the city of Covington's fire department was asked to be on standby, Satterfield said.
Dispatchers received the first call around 2:46 p.m. of a house fire on Usher Road struck by lightning. When firefighters arrived, they found the home ablaze with flames and heavy smoke pouring from a wall in the attic area. The fire was quickly contained and no one was home at the time and no animals were reported inside. There was still quite a bit of damage within the home, Satterfield said, and the owners were put in touch with the Red Cross for aid.
A second lightning strike was reported at 2:51 p.m. on Shadow Brook Trace, where callers smelled smoke from electrical wires, but firefighters found no actual fire.
At 3:20 p.m., just up the street from Usher Road, a neighbor reported a house fire in the Dove Point subdivision after lighting ignited a fire in the wall of the attic area.
Mirsada Hadziahametovic, who had recently moved from Florida for work and to be closer to her family, was at home with her 8-year-old granddaughter when the lighting struck.
"I was so scared, because it was only me and my baby," said the 61-year-old, who broke her arm in two places when she fell while trying to get out of the house with her granddaughter after seeing smoke seep over the ceiling.
Neighbor Alice Whittle lives two houses down and went outside to inspect her own house because the lighting was so tremendous.
"I came back in and it wasn't but a few minutes until the grandmother and little girl were banging on the door and were just in hysterics," she said.
Whittle called the fire department and soothed the 8-year-old, dissuading her from going back into the house to rescue her pets.
"I told her 'We can always buy another hamster and another kitty cat but we can't get another you,'" she said.
Firefighters arrived within minutes and contained the fire, pulling out portions of the wall and charred roof. Hadziahametovic was taken to Newton Medical Center to splint her broken arm.
Her daughter-in-law, Zinaida Alekic, said the family was working through the insurance process and slowly piecing together their normal lives.
"As long as the two of them are fine, everything else it's easy to replace," Alekic said. She praised the fast work of the fire department and paramedics and the welcoming response of her neighbors. Her daughter was still able to attend the first day of school by staying at a neighbor's house.
Earlier this summer, a house on Ga. Highway 81 burned to a crisp June 22 when lighting struck the metal roof. Luckily no one was home at the time. The owner, who spent five years building the house, is still struggling with insurance claims, said his mother, Carol Mann.
Storms on July 22 also started fires that destroyed four homes in Douglas County and one in Gwinnett County. Gwinnett first responders also received more than 140 storm related calls on July 22 and several more lightning fires on July 29.
Satterfield said it was hard to tell if this has been a more active thunderstorm season than usual, but anecdotally, it seemed that way.
"These seem to be storms that have a lot more electrical energy than I can remember in quite some time," he said
State Climatologist David Stooksbury said drought conditions could also cause more lightening related damage.
"Some of these dryer years, we seem to have more of these destructive lighting storms with more house fires," Stooksbury said cautiously. "I'm not sure if this is just a perception, or we actually are having more lighting, or this is dry and any lighting has a greater chance of creating a fire because it is more dry."
Satterfield recommended taking precautions during a lightning storm such as staying away from anything attached to an electrical outlet or cable outlet and staying out of water. When outside, try and take shelter in a structure, but stay away from an isolated structure like a shed in an open field, and stay away from isolated trees or metal railings.
Many modern houses do not have lighting conductors, said Satterfield, and there is some debate as to their effectiveness.
"A lot of times, lightning will hit a water line or gas line and run up to the house. When that happens, lightning protection isn't going to help much," he said.
According to the National Weather Service, 24 people have died in 2008 so far from being struck by lightning, mostly while located outside.