By Gordon Williams

May is Volcano Preparedness Month in Washington State–a reminder that Mount St, Helens blew its top on a day in May in 1980, and a chance to learn how to coexist with the state’s array of dangerously active volcanoes.

In announcing Volcano Preparedness Month, the U,S. Geological Survey (USGS) says the event provides Washingtonians “an opportunity to become more familiar with volcano hazards in their communities and learn about steps they can take to reduce potential impacts.”

Becoming familiar with all things volcanic is need-to-know stuff if you live in Washington. Poised as we are atop the Ring of Fire–the earthquake-volcano band that rings the Pacific Ocean–there is always the danger of something big and bad erupting in our midst. According to the USGS, Washington has more dangerously active volcanoes than any state in the lower 48.

Mount Kilauea in Hawaii is the nation’s most dangerous volcano. Mount St. Helens is number two, Mount Rainier is number three. Also high on the list is Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, Mount Adams, and Mount Hood just across the state line in Oregon. Being an active volcano merely means it has erupted in the past 10,000 years. But Mount St. Helens was active as recently as 2008 and Mount Rainier last erupted in 1895.

Photo by Jaser Cervantes on Unsplash

Living in Washington means you want to know all you can about volcanoes–what makes them dangerous and how to keep you and your loved ones safe when you live deep within the ring of fire.

One bit of good news from the USGS is that volcanoes usually give some warning before they erupt. Mount St. Helens had been rambling for months before it erupted on May 16, 1980. When the eruption did come it was far more violent than anyone anticipated–shearing 1,300 feet off the mountain top, leveling all trees over 200 square miles, and sending an ash plume 16 miles into the sky. 

Further, as the USGS warns, “the time between the earliest indications of unrest and volcanic activity might be short, from days to weeks or months.”

For more from the USGS, there will be a webinar on May 13, 2021 from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. PDT at The USGS says it will educate you “about the five active volcanoes in the Washington Cascades, their hazards, and how you can be prepared for an eruption.”

First rule of volcano safety says the USGS is to know about hazards in your area. Are you in a volcano hazard zone? Go to the website of the state Department of Natural Resources at and search for volcanoes. Your local fire department or country office of emergency management can help. Ask local government and school officials about evacuation routes and plans for dealing with an eruption. Know where to look for help and guidance should there be a volcanic eruption. Make sure everyone in the family knows what to do in an eruption.

If you are in a danger zone, have goggles and gloves ready to don in an eruption to protect you from falling ash. Have a battery-powered radio to be used and listen for local warnings and evacuation notices during an eruption.

Erupting volcanoes pose multiple perils and you must remain alert to all of them. Falling hot ash is one peril; lava flows are another. Still another is lahars–fast-moving mudflows caused by the sudden melting of snow and ice on the mountain. Lahars can cover dozens of miles with enough force to move giant boulders. Around 150,000 people live in valleys carved by lahars from past eruptions of Mount Rainier. Yet another danger is flooding. Ash and debris from Mount St, Helens filled the Toutle River Valley for 13 miles to a depth of 600 feet.

The Red Cross has lots of advice on how to keep safe during an eruption.

If you are inside, close doors, windows, and dampers to keep ash out. Keep animals inside to keep them safe from ash and toxic fumes. If you are outside, try to get indoors as quickly as possible. Avoid getting downwind of the volcano since ash will be blown in that direction. Wear goggles if you have them, or eyeglasses if you don’t. Cover as much exposed skin as you can. Avoid river valleys or low-lying areas that could be flooded or swept by a lahar.

Don’t return home after an eruption until the authorities say it is safe to do so. When you can return home, clear any ash off the roof as soon as possible. Volcanic ash is extremely heavy. Unless you remove it, the weight of the ass could collapse the roof.

The American Red Cross has a lot of additional information on volcano preparedness. Visit our website to learn more.

American Red Cross Northwest Region

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