Ecology: Expect dust storms, wildfires

— Dust storms and wildfires may be on the horizon for Eastern Washington this year because of drought conditions.

Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a drought in three Washington regions – the Olympic Peninsula, east slopes of the Central Cascades and Walla Walla. Today, the state Department of Ecology warned of 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 forests in Eastern Washington.

“Drought-like conditions increase the potential not only for dust storms, but for wildfires” Ecology atmospheric scientist Clint Bowman said. “Spring and summer thunderstorms will bring the threat of dust storms to the Columbia Basin and lightning-caused wildfires throughout the region.”

The same conditions existed last July when lightning sparked four fires that would later grow together to become the Carlton Complex wildfire, the largest blaze in state history.

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 makes driving hazardous, knocks out power, prompts school closures and causes severe breathing issues. Infants, small children and asthmatics are particularly vulnerable.

A haboob hit the Spokane area last summer.

Ecology monitors pollutants, including those from dust storms and wildfires. They 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, often times communities are exposed to high levels of particle pollution from wood, vegetation and anything else burned, the department said.

“Sensitive individuals can experience serious respiratory and cardiovascular effects which could require a visit to hospital emergency rooms,” Palcisko said. “Air pollution can reach such high levels that even healthy people could experience difficulty breathing and burning eyes.”


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