Staying safe in a state filled with dangerous volcanoes

Photo of Mount St Helens, by Jaser Cervantes on Unsplash

By Gordon Williams

May is Volcano Preparedness Month in Washington state — so designated because the devastating eruption of Mount St. Helens in Skamania County, WA occurred in May, just 40 years ago. The designation is worth noting since, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Washington has more dangerously active volcanoes — five of them — than any state in the Lower 48.

That being the case, you should know about the risks those Washington volcanoes pose — and how to stay safe if danger from a volcano threatens. An excellent source for stay-safe advice is the Emergency App from the American Red Cross. It is available online at at no cost from both the Apple Store and Google Play.

First, let’s put the volcanic risk in context. A recent article in this blog talked about the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 — the most destructive eruption in U.S. history. And Mount St. Helens is second on that USGS list of most dangerous volcanoes — after Hawaii’s Kilauea. Mount Rainier in Pierce County is third, Mount Baker in Whatcom County is 14th, Glacier Peak in Snohomish County is 15th and Mount Adams in Yakima and Skamania counties is 34th.

All are considered active, meaning all are capable of erupting. Volcanoes usually give some warning before they erupt. Mount St. Helens rumbled ominously in the weeks before it blew up. When the eruption did come, though, it came suddenly and violently — starting with the greatest landslide in U.S. history as one whole side of the mountain collapsed.

One lesson from Mount St. Helens is that you can be at risk even if you don’t live close by a volcano. The blast from Mount St. Helens leveled trees and buildings over 250 square miles. Lahars are massive mudslides caused by the sudden melting of snow and ice on the volcano. The lahar from Mount St, Helens spread out many miles from the mountain. Ash from the eruption fell as far away as Minnesota and Oklahoma.

Nor was the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens the end of it. The mountain erupted again in 2004 and stayed active for the next four years. The take-away is clear. It is wise to appreciate the dangers volcanoes pose, no matter where in Washington you live.

First step to staying safe is to determine how close you are to one of Washington’s high-danger volcanoes. Best source for all things volcanic in Washington is the website of the state’s Department of Natural Resources at dnr.wa.gov. Among other things, you’ll find a map showing where each of the state’s volcanoes is located. Click on each volcano to see if there is any recent activity you need to worry about.

The DNR site suggests that everyone living close to a volcano have an evacuation route planned — one away from ground that could be buried by a lahar — and an emergency kit that includes goggles and a breathing mask. Make sure your schools have evacuation plans and include your pets in your own plans.

RedCross.org has free resources for educators to help youth prepare for disasters and emergencies.

What about that preparedness advice from the Red Cross? If an eruption threatens, keep listening to a battery-powered radio for warnings and evacuation orders. Follow all evacuation orders even if there seems no risk where you are. Remember that a volcano can pose a threat even if you are some distance away from the eruption. Be careful while driving to safety, since falling ash could reduce visibility to near zero.

In an actual eruption, close windows, doors and dampers to keep volcanic ash out. Put machinery in a garage or barn to protect it from ash. If you can’t get the machinery inside, at least cover it. Keep animals inside to keep them from swallowing toxic ash.

If you are caught outdoors, try to get inside as quickly as possible. Avoid getting downwind of the volcano since ash will be blown in that direction; avoid river valleys or other low-lying areas that could be buried by a lahar. Cover your mouth and eyes. Wear goggles if you have them, or eyeglasses if you don’t. Remove contact lens so ash doesn’t get inside, Cover as much of your skin as possible.

After an eruption, let friends and family know you are safe. Keep listening to the radio for further instructions from local officials. Don’t return home until you are told it is safe to do so. As soon as you can, clear your roof of any ash. Volcanic ash is very heavy and could collapse your roof. And finally, cover your skin and protect your eyes during cleanup.

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