Here’s something to add to the packing list for spring and summer outings — dust masks.
The low snowpack and warm weather in the mountains of Central and Eastern Washington has the state Department of Ecology predicting dust storms and wildfires in the months ahead.
Drought conditions likely will mean dry vegetation and soil in Washington mountain forests away from the coast and in fields that are not irrigated or get less than usual water because of shortages.
The weather has been dry in the shrub steppe landscape of the Mid-Columbia, but moisture is not as far below normal as in the mountains.
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In the Tri-Cities, 4.11 inches of precipitation has been recorded between October and the first of this month, which is 0.48 inches below normal, according to the National Weather Service.
But state officials say the snow pack in the Olympic Mountains is just 7 percent of normal, and it ranges from 8 to 45 percent of normal across the Cascade Mountains. In the Blue Mountains near Walla Walla, it is at 60 percent of normal.
The shrub steppe of the Mid-Columbia is more dependent on spring rains, making mid-March early to start predicting what kind of a wildfire and dust season may be coming.
“There are a lot of unknowns to deal with,” said Dennis Hull of the National Weather Service.
Dry, hot summers are a given for the Tri-City area. But two conditions can contribute to wildfires, said Ken Williams, Benton County fire marshal.
A wet spring means heavy weed growth, leading to hotter, faster burning wildfires. Dry springs also are a problem because weeds dry out faster, and the wildfire season lasts longer.
Not only will dry conditions in some parts of Eastern Washington increase the likelihood of dust storms, but any place where a wildfire has burned vegetation will have dry, loose soil that increases the possibility of a dust storm, said Camille St. Onge, Ecology spokeswoman.
Strong winds can blow over loose soil and cause intense desert-style storms called haboobs, Ecology said. Haboobs form when air is forced down, where it picks up dust, and pushed forward by the front of a traveling thunderstorm cell.
What looks like a wall of dust and dirt makes driving hazardous, knocks out power and can cause breathing issues.
Infants, small children and people with asthma are especially vulnerable.
“Sensitive individuals can experience serious respiratory and cardiovascular effects, which could require a visit to hospital emergency rooms,” said Gary Palcisko, a toxicologist with Ecology’s air quality program. “Air pollution can reach such high levels that even healthy people could experience difficulty breathing and burning eyes.”
The state advises carrying a dust mask in the car for each member of the family, but most importantly for infants and children, in drought-stricken areas of Eastern and Central Washington to be prepared for sudden dust storms. Outdoor workers, such as those in orchards, should also plan to have them available this summer, according to the state.
Residents also can track forecasts of dust conditions in the region from the weather service at 1.usa.gov/1FCFlHI.