On the heels of Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 13 declaration of drought for three Washington regions comes a forecast predicting dust storms and wildfires in the months ahead.
The same conditions that set the stage for the drought — above-average temperatures and low snowpack — are also expected to create dry fields and forest beds in central and eastern Washington, according to a recent news release from the Washington Department of Ecology.
“Drought-like conditions increase the potential not only for dust storms, but for wildfires,” said Clint Bowman, an atmospheric scientist with Ecology. “Spring and summer thunderstorms will bring the threat of dust storms to the Columbia Basin and lightning-caused wildfires throughout the region.”
Strong winds blowing over loose soil on fields can cause extremely intense desert-style storms known as haboobs. Haboobs carry a wall of dust and dirt that has the potential to make driving hazardous, knock out power, close schools and cause severe breathing issues for people. Infants, small children and asthmatics are particularly vulnerable.
Among air pollutants that Ecology monitors is pollution from dust storms and wildfires, which can cause respiratory issues for people and lead to a number of other health risks.
“Wildfires also pose health problems,” said Gary Palcisko, a toxicologist with Ecology’s Air Quality program.
While wildfires may be viewed as short-term incidents, communities are often exposed to high levels of particle pollution from wood, vegetation and anything else burned in the fire.
“Sensitive individuals can experience serious respiratory and cardiovascular effects which could require a visit to hospital emergency rooms,” said Palcisko. “Air pollution can reach such high levels that even healthy people could experience difficulty breathing and burning eyes.”
Ecology recommends that residents of central or eastern Washington carry a dust mask for themselves and family members, especially children.
People traveling to these areas this summer can learn about conditions by visiting the National Weather Service online dust storm forecast page.
For more information about how to protect yourself in dust storms, visit the “outdoor dust” page on Ecology’s website or consult your physician.
To see photos and videos of recent dust storms and wildfires in Washington, visit Ecology’s Flickr account: dust storms and Wildfires.