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Deadly Utah pileup highlights another concern of drought, expert says

This photo shows the scene on I-15 near Kanosh on Sunday, July 25, 2021, after a sand or dust storm led to multiple crashes involving 22 vehicles. Troopers say eight people died, including some children, and at least 10 more were hospitalized.

This photo shows the scene on I-15 near Kanosh on Sunday, July 25, 2021, after a sand or dust storm led to multiple crashes involving 22 vehicles. Troopers say eight people died, including some children, and at least 10 more were hospitalized. (Utah Highway Patrol)



KANOSH, Millard County — As Utah Highway Patrol continues to investigate a 22-vehicle pileup in Millard County that killed eight people and injured several others, they've pinpointed a dust storm as an initial factor in the crash.

UHP officials said that, at about 4:30 p.m. Sunday, dust blanked I-15 between Meadow and Kanosh in Millard County leading up to a chain reaction of crashes.

The National Weather Service points out that dust storms and haboobs happen from outflow winds in a thunderstorm that pick up dirt and dust in an area. They can end up miles long in length and thousands of feet in height — and can begin so quickly that it can be difficult to warn ahead of time, according to the agency. Most last only a few minutes, but one of the biggest concerns is that the blinding weather phenomenon can pass over a busy roadway and make it impossible for motorists to see, such as what reportedly happened Sunday.

Jon Meyer, a climate scientist for the Utah Climate Center at Utah State University, said there is a "pretty easy connection" to make between dry conditions — such as Utah's drought — and sand or dust storms like what happened Sunday. It highlights one of the lesser-viewed concerns regarding droughts in the state.

Meyer explained that the dry conditions — from dried-out lake beds to the general desert land — result in more available dirt and dust to be picked up in storms. The conditions already resulted in similar storms, and the threat continues for more as long as there's dry land and strong winds.

"Any time you dry out the land, you have the possibility of dust storms to occur; and right now we are very dry. ... It shouldn't be overlooked," he said. "Obviously, this is going to be weighing on our hearts and minds with this recent event. I think this is certainly a part of climate change and increases in the chance we have these kinds of events where they can potentially be much larger in scope down the road."

Handling a dust storm on the road

If another dust storm does happen over a Utah roadway, there are a few ways to handle it.

The National Weather Service advises motorists to avoid entering a dust storm if that's possible. Drivers approaching dust storms are told to pull their vehicle off pavement "as far as possible," stop and turn off any lights and set the vehicle's emergency brake instead of placing their feet on a brake pedal to avoid tail lights from illuminating.

Experts emphasize a "lights out" approach based on what's happened in previous crashes.

"Vehicles approaching from the rear and using the advance car's lights as a guide have inadvertently left the roadway and in some instances collided with the parked vehicle," the agency wrote. "Make sure all of your lights are off when you park off the roadway."

If it's impossible to pull over to the side of the road, experts advise motorists to "proceed at a speed suitable for visibility," turn on their lights, apply their vehicle horn occasionally and use the painted lines to guide them until they can find a safe place to pull over or visibility improves.

Utah Highway Patrol troopers on Monday likened dust storms to fog events.

"When visibility is low, please slow down. Don't outdrive your ability to maneuver safely," troopers wrote in a statement Monday. "If you can't see, you need to reduce your speed."

The National Weather Service tip page can be found here.

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