Volcano safety: Orting prepares 44 years after Mount Saint Helens eruption

Saturday marks 44 years since Mount St. Helens erupted, and in the four decades since, scientists have made leaps in seismic tracking. These advancements are celebrated by communities settled in the shadow of active volcanoes, places like Orting in Pierce County.

Orting Mayor, Josh Penner, was born two years after the Mount St. Helens eruption, which killed 57 people and filled the sky with ash. He grew up learning about the devastation and now speaks more like a scientist than a small town mayor. 

"I was terrified of volcanoes growing up, I used to have nightmares, so of course I moved to the community that’s the face of Mt. Rainier and became the mayor," Penner said. "Finding out there’s volcanoes in our backyard just cemented it in, that addiction to being scared as a kid."

The primary concern for Orting, and nearby communities such as Puyallup, Sumner, Buckley, and Wilkeson, is the risk of lahars, also known as mudflows.

Lahars are caused by the rapid melting of snow and ice during eruptions, leaving a downhill flow of pyroclastic material, fragmented rocks and water. These powerful waves of debris are deadly and can be triggered even without a volcanic event. 

"There’s a lot of fantastic scenarios of lahar where it’s a 50-foot wall of mud traveling at 50 miles per hour. By the time it gets to Orting or the communities here in the greater Puget Sound, it’s moving much slower," Penner said. 

Residents of Orting would have approximately 60 minutes to evacuate in the event of a lahar. The community takes this risk seriously, as just a few weeks ago Orting conducted the largest lahar evacuation drill in the world, involving 45,000 participants.


Over 45K Washington students participate in world’s largest lahar evacuation drill

Tens of thousands of students in Washington participated in the world’s largest lahar evacuation drill, gauging how fast the response would be for a future debris flow.

"What we look for in Orting is how can we get the most amount of people out of the city in the most efficient way," Penner noted.

Penner is encouraged by the number of seismometers currently monitoring Mount Rainier. There are 20 seismometers in and around the mountain.

"It certainly is a very monitored mountain," he said.

However, this level of monitoring does not extend to all active volcanoes in the region. Harold Tobin of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network recently highlighted the need for more instrumentation on Mount Baker and Glacier Peak.

"They’re both in remote spots, wilderness areas that are hard to get to. Glacier Peak has one seismometer on it and it’s a very old one that is very in need of proper upgrade and replacement," Tobin said.

This summer, one of the seismic stations on Mount Rainier is scheduled for an upgrade. Scientists aim to expand their lahar monitoring network in the future as well.


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