Lightning kills woman, 2 dogs as thunderstorms pound Southern California

·6 min read
PICO RIVERA-CA-JUNE 22, 2022: The remains of two dogs are removed from the scene where a woman and her two dogs were killed by an apparent lightning strike along the San Gabriel River & Bike Trail in Pico Rivera on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
The remains of dogs are removed from the scene where a woman and her two dogs were killed by a lightning strike along the San Gabriel River bike trail in Pico Rivera. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

A woman and her two dogs were fatally struck by lightning Wednesday morning in Pico Rivera as thunderstorms pounded Southern California, prompting officials to temporarily close beaches and keep high alert for fires sparked by dry lightning.

The woman and dogs were killed while walking on a path along the San Gabriel River just before 9 a.m., as severe weather moved into the southeast Los Angeles region, said L.A. County Sheriff's Sgt. Patrick Morey, the field sergeant for Pico Rivera.

"All of a sudden it started thundering and lightning," Morey said. "... There's a one-in-a-million chance of something like this happening and it happened."

Officials did not identify the woman or release many other details about the incident at a news conference Wednesday not far from where a series of singed holes marred the path's asphalt, marking the deadly lighting strike. L.A. County Sheriff's Deputy Morgan Ateaga, a department spokesperson, said a passerby alerted authorities after noticing the woman, who was in her 50s, and her dogs, but paramedics were unable to revive her.

The woman’s death was the nation’s first recorded lightning fatality this year, according to the National Lightning Safety Council. Fatal strikes are still quite rare but have happened anywhere from 11 to 40 times a year over the last decade, according to the group.

As monsoonal moisture moved through Southern California overnight and into Wednesday, parts of the region were hit by thunder, lightning, rain, heavy winds and even hail.

The National Weather Service issued special weather advisories Wednesday morning and into the afternoon for several parts of the region, warning people to take extra caution and seek shelter when severe weather arises.

Though the rainfall and storms were most severe in north and east Los Angeles County, extreme weather affected the region from west Orange County, where Newport Beach temporarily closed beaches early Wednesday because of lightning, into central Ventura County, where firefighters responded to at least two brush fires in the area of recent storms, and farther north into Kern County, where lightning sparked dozens of emergency calls.

A brush fire that ignited east of the 5 Freeway near the Grapevine had grown to about 800 acres with 10% containment by Wednesday night, according to the Kern County Fire Department. Its cause was under investigation, but it is believed to have been sparked by lightning, Capt. Andrew Freeborn said.

A lightning bolt is seen in this screen-grab from video in Whittier on Wednesday morning.
A lightning bolt is seen in this screen-grab from video in Whittier on Wednesday morning. (Raul Roa/Los Angeles Times)

The cells of rain and storms were scattered, hitting such areas as Long Beach, downtown L.A., Glendale, the western San Gabriel Valley and the Antelope Valley, the latter of which was under a flood advisory for about two hours Wednesday afternoon.

“We had quite an active night last night, and it’s continuing this morning," said Ryan Kittell, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. "Any of these storms could produce a lot of lightning, and we've seen some gusty winds already. … We've had some reports of pea-sized hail."

He said that wind gusts were recorded at 66 mph just west of Lancaster and that hail had been reported in Camarillo and Pasadena overnight, and more was likely to come throughout the day.

Cerritos College in Norwalk announced it closed campus Wednesday after a lightning strike and a subsequent campus-wide power outage, one of many scattered power outages throughout the region.

Kittell said lightning was the largest concern, especially "dry lightning," which can hit the already-dry ground without much rain, becoming a huge fire threat.

“In the last hour we’ve had 208 lightning strikes that have hit the ground in Los Angeles County," Kittell said at about 8 a.m. Wednesday. He said the agency recorded an additional 350 lightning strikes that remained in the clouds, totaling "quite a bit of lightning" in the area.

“Lightning is a very good fire-starting source and the environment is pretty ripe for fire right now," Kittell said. He said Wednesday morning that the threat for "dry lightning" remained high and the agency had tracked some reports of struck power poles and minor fires.

The monsoonal moisture that drove Wednesday's storms was a culmination of other pressure systems in the region switching the wind's direction, pulling up tropical moisture from Mexico, Kittell said. A low-pressure system northwest of Los Angeles shifted the wind's direction — now blowing south to north instead of its typical west to east.

He said the weather pattern happens only a few times a year, usually not until July or August.

Firefighters in the Angeles National Forest responded to numerous reports of smoke from lightning strikes, officials reported, but crews contained any flames.

The storms began to expand into Central California by midmorning Wednesday, with National Weather Service officials warning Kern County could see the most severe thunderstorms for that region. In Fresno early Wednesday, officials responded to a wildfire sparked by a thunderstorm, the Fresno Bee reported. It was since contained.

In Pico Rivera, some neighbors gathered Wednesday afternoon near the path where the woman died, many wondering whether they knew her. In the distance toward the San Gabriel Mountains, lightning continued to slash across the sky.

"We should just get out of here, you never know," said Marco Rodriguez, who was walking his chocolate Labrador, Jasper, along the path. He turned around to go home once he learned that the woman and her dogs had died.

Others seemed undeterred, biking past what appeared to be burn marks and holes from the lightning strike. A tuft of light brown fur lay nearby.

"You start coming to mind who's your regulars passing by in the morning," said Sandra Sipaque, who lives close to the path and frequently walks it with her husband. "Everybody knows each other — we all look out for one another out here."

Mary Perez has lived on Mines Avenue — the road closest to where the woman died — since the 1970s and said she and her granddaughters watched the lightning streak across the sky above their home early Wednesday. When sirens neared their street, she guided paramedics toward the river path.

"We don't know if we know her or not," Perez said as she stood next to her granddaughters, worried that the woman was a neighbor who often walks her two dogs. "We're hoping it's not her."

By early afternoon, a coroner's van removed the woman's body. An hour later, as specks of rain began to fall, a Southeast Area Animal Control Authority crew arrived to retrieve the dogs, who were placed into black plastic bags and hauled away.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.