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Deadly dust storm another reminder of extreme heat and drought scorching West

This photo provided by the Utah Highway Patrol shows the scene on Interstate 15 near Kanosh on Sunday after a dust storm led to multiple crashes involving 22 vehicles that killed eight people.
This photo provided by the Utah Highway Patrol shows the scene on Interstate 15 near Kanosh on Sunday after a dust storm led to multiple crashes involving 22 vehicles, according to authorities. The Utah Highway Patrol said eight people died, including some children, and at least 10 more were hospitalized following Sunday’s incident.
Utah Highway Patrol

Utah’s weather this summer has been unrelenting with its heat, measly precipitation in northern Utah leaving the region bone dry and the Great Salt Lake at its lowest level since record keeping began, and sudden bursts of flash flooding in the southern half of the state.

And then Sunday happened.

The National Weather Service in Salt Lake City issued multiple “significant weather” advisories in a series of tweets for central Utah, warning of the potential for half-inch sized hail, heavy rain and wind gusts of up to 55 mph in Millard and Sevier counties.

Those strong winds whipped up dust in central Utah and then the unthinkable happened: Eight people died in chain-reaction collisions on I-15 involving at least 20 vehicles.

Five of the eight people who died were in the same vehicle, two were in another vehicle, and one fatality was from a third vehicle, the Utah Highway Patrol said. Four of the people who were killed were adults and four were under age 15. At least another 10 people were injured, some critically, and taken to area hospitals.

Utah does not suffer from frequent, high-intensity dust storms, but as the drought continues its hold on the state, the risk of having more of them amplifies.

New research from Brigham Young University says that about 90% of dust along the Wasatch Front blows in from the western desert, once home to the prehistoric Lake Bonneville.

As drought conditions continue to challenge the Great Salt Lake, researchers predict that even more dust in the atmosphere will waft into crowded population centers.

Fire primed region for blowing dust

The mostly flat area peppered with sage brush and cheat grass is vulnerable to wind-whipped dust events, especially in the aftermath of a 250-square-mile fire that roared through the region in 2007, leaving a charred and devastated landscape in its wake.

A huge dust devil forms on the southeast part of the Milford flat fire in July 2007. Dust devils form when extremely hot air near the surface rises quickly through a small pocket of cooler low pressure air above it. If conditions are just right, the air may begin to rotate.
Michael Brandy, Deseret News

Two people, a husband and wife from California, died as a result of the smoke from the Milford Flat Fire after their motorcycle — which had stopped at an I-15 closure — was hit from behind.

That fire was caused by a lightning strike and whipped into a frenzy in early July by dry conditions and strong winds.

Quick-moving storms leave little time for warning

John Gleason, spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation, said storms like Sunday’s come up suddenly and make it difficult to prepare.

“Unfortunately there is not a lot of lead up to these events. These things happen very suddenly.”

Gleason said Arizona, which deals with frequent monster dust storms (called a haboob) urges drivers to refrain from driving into a dust storm because of how quickly it can turn so intense.

That state’s department of transportation has a campaign called “Pull Aside, Stay Alive” that offers dust storm safety driving tips.

The best thing to do is to get completely off the roadway before visibility becomes completely impaired and to turn off the vehicle’s lights.

Gleason said much like Utah’s fog, motorists trying to navigate in a heavy dust storm will follow the taillights ahead of them.

“You can find yourself in this incredibly dangerous situation in just moments,” Gleason said.

Traffic safety officials also advise that the emergency brake should be set and motorists should remain in their vehicle with their seat belt on and wait out the storm.

The severe weather outlook that peppered Utah over the weekend was continuing into Monday, with the majority of the state under some threat of thunderstorm activity and potentially high winds.

Gleason said with the unpredictable monsoon season impacting central and southern Utah, people should exercise caution and pay attention to weather alerts.