Motorists turned their heads as Kevin Wilcocks rode his forest green bike north on Oak Street. A light blue medical mask covered his mouth and nose to keep him from inhaling the blowing, dirty dust that unexpectedly hit Bakersfield Thursday morning.
“Being outside or with your car window rolled down with this air quality is really, really bad,” 36-year-old Wilcocks said. “But this mask helps me.”
Riding home from a doctor’s appointment — using his bike because it’s his only mode of transportation — Wilcocks was already experiencing what the National Weather Service was saying: The dust was bad.
The NWS in Hanford issued a blowing dust advisory for Kern County at about 10:05 a.m. after winds whipped through the Kern River Canyon, topping 40 miles per hour. The advisory was for the west-central and southern San Joaquin Valley, and, extends through Friday.
“The winds were supposed to pick up this afternoon, but they picked up faster than we thought,” NWS meteorologist Gary Sanger said at about 1:30 p.m.
Early in the afternoon, dust blew at about 40 miles per hour at Meadows Field Airport. At the foot of the Grapevine, winds were at about 50 miles per hour.
The drought is making conditions worse.
“There is no vegetation to hold the dust in place because of the lack of water in the ground,” Sanger said.
Along with the dust, the temperature was unseasonably warm.
Bakersfield on Thursday set a temperature record for the date. The high reached 79 degrees at Meadows Field Airport by 4 p.m., breaking the previous record high for Jan. 23 of 77 degrees set in 1970, the meteorologist said.
It’s forecast to be cloudy in Bakersfield for the next seven days, with no precipitation predicted.
The dust stirred up health concerns.
Dr. Claudia Jonah, Kern County health officer, said residents should be concerned about the dust, especially with the chance of valley fever exposure. With winds so strong, the spores can blow long distances.
“This is a concern for the potential aggravation of chronic health problems, like valley fever, emphysema, and other respiratory problems,” Jonah said.
Even people who stay inside could be hurt by the dust as it enters homes and workplaces.
“Moisten the dirt on your countertops because if you just wipe it dry, the dust particles will end up in the air inside your home and you’ll be inhaling it,” Jonah said.
Jaime Holt, chief communications officer for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, said the dust kicks up unhealthy particulate matter and people should avoid the outdoors.
“If you’re outside, you are going to breathe in particulate matter or it will get in your eyes, nose, and it will cause problems,” Holt said.
There’s no simple or safe way to avoid being exposed to the blowing dust, but Holt recommends at least putting your hand in front of your mouth if you are just walking quickly to your car.
“Dust is not meant to be inhaled,” Holt said.