An unusual dust storm blew through the Madera area Sunday afternoon, darkening the sky and coating the city with a layer of fine silt. The sudden low visibility also caused a 15-plus car pile up on State Route 152 near Road 12 just west of Chowchilla, seriously injuring one driver, according to the California Highway Patrol.
The waves of wind-driven dust began about 1:30 p.m. and drivers involved in the incident told officers that visibility went from low to no visibility in an instant, before most had time to even react. Some drivers that exited their vehicles in the storm were also at risk of being struck by other moving vehicles, with some narrow near misses being reported, according to witnesses calling 911.
As the line of westbound traffic tried to slow, a large Dodge pickup plowed into the back of the line of cars, running over the top of and crushing the roof of a Honda sedan in front of him. That woman driver of the Honda sustained major injuries from the force of the impact.
She was taken via Lifeflight helicopter to Community Regional Medical Center. Several other drivers sustained minor to moderate injuries. The many collisions were spread over about a quarter mile of SR 152, according to witnesses.
Several secondary, less serious crashes occurred on the eastbound side of SR 152 as the dust clouds and pile up collisions distracted other drivers. One car that was struck from behind was pushed through the center divide and ended up facing the wrong way on the eastbound side in traffic.
Multiple ambulances and tow trucks responded to the multi-vehicle collisions. Chowchilla police assisted with traffic brakes and attempted to slow traffic ahead of the dust storm area. Traffic was reduced to one westbound lane for about 4 hours as emergency crews worked to extricate the injured woman, treat other drivers and clear the wreckage from the busy east west roadway.
Residents say the many recently plowed fields adjacent to SR 152 in the area contribute to frequent, blinding dust storms in the area.
Public information officer Greg Rodriguez said drivers should treat dust storms the same way they treat fog conditions.
“Slow down, increase following distances. And always watch for unsafe or changing traffic conditions.” Rodriguez said.
The incident remains under investigation as authorities investigate the circumstances and the many vehicles and drivers involved.