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News Lightning strike destroys Burningtown home

Elderly woman waits for hours for assistance after escaping blaze

A 9-1-1 call placed shortly after 7 a.m., Wednesday morning, reported a house fire in progress at 679 Smith Road in Lower Burningtown off of Younce Creek Road. The blaze had apparently been started during a series of direct lightning strikes to the single story, tin-roofed home. The house and a storage outbuilding next to it were completely destroyed in the fire.

The lightning was the result of a severe thunderstorm that brought high winds and heavy rains to several areas in the county and left more than 10,000 residents without power Wednesday morning. Three fires in the county, including one on Watauga Road, were caused by downed power lines.

Louise Smith, the elderly woman who lived in the home Smith Road, managed to escape the blaze and moved a safe distance from the house. According to her daughter, Pam Ledford, Mrs. Smith, 84, woke up to the smell of smoke around 4:30 a.m. She put on her shoes and made her way out the back door of her home with her walker. Smith then climbed the hill behind the building to a back road where, for the next two hours Smith waited for help as she watched her home burn to the ground.

Neighbors passing by, who saw the glow of the fire in the sky over the property, immediately called Smith's son, Bill Smith, who lives next door but was unaware of the blaze consuming his mother's home.

“There's nothing left,” said Ledford on Friday. Ledford, an administrative assistant in county manager's offic, was born in the house on Smith Road which was reduced to smoldering embers in a matter of minutes. One of the few structural elements of the home left after the blaze was a new ramp built of pressure-treated wood that had been recently donated by a local church. A lifetime of family heirlooms and memories went up in smoke with the house, says Ledford.

Ledford reported that when her brother first arrived at the scene, he rushed to his mother's bedroom but couldn't find her. “He was hollering, and my mama heard him, so she started hollering back, ‘Help me!’”

Burningtown Fire Department was the first responder on the scene, arriving within minutes of the 9-1-1 call. They were assisted by firefighters from Cowee and Franklin. Farrell Jamison, the chief Macon County Fire Inspector, said that the National Weather Service in Spartanburg confirmed both positive and negative strikes in the area of Smith Road in the early morning hours before the fire broke out.

According to Jamison, it appeared that the lightning struck the house directly. The only structural board that wasn't completely consumed in the fire was connected to the house's electrical meter, which had been blown off of the house in the power surge caused by the strike. Jamison added that the coordinates for the lightning strikes matched up conclusively with the address of the home.

An LP gas tank began venting and gas ignited, causing a large fire plume, Jamison reported. He noted that it was fortunate the fire had not spread but was isolated to the building structures due to the damp, rainy conditions of Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning. The property of the house borders U.S. Forest Service lands.

Positive lightning strike a rare phenomena

According to David Cook, a meteorologist with Argonne National Laboratory, about 90 percent of all lightning strikes are negative strikes. This means the lightning was initiated by a concentrated negative charge in the bottom of the cloud, inducing an area of positive charge on the ground.

Positive lightning strikes, one of which was reported in the vicinity of the Smith house on Wednesday morning, are much less common. Exactly the opposite of negative strikes, positive strikes most frequently occur in severe thunderstorms or just prior to tornado formation. Researchers are currently looking into the phenomenon as a possible predictors of severe weather and tornado formation.

“If we could identify the correlation and timing of positive stroke formation, we may have one more predictive tool to give people early warning of a tornado,” wrote Cook on an online Department of Energy message board.


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