Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Redux: May 18, 1980 - Mt St Helens: The BN Connection

My how time flies!  Today marks the 36th anniversary of the Mt. St. Helens eruption.  Here is how I originally presented the story  ...

Portland Oregon, May 18, 1980.
After months of teasing us, Mt St Helens finally blew her top off. Literally. One square mile of it!

The mountain is about 60 miles north and slightly to the east of the Portland - Vancouver metroplex. You just had to find a hill with an unobstructed view to the north, to enjoy this, the most violent of natures land re-distribution schemes. These folks were watching from the Pittock Mansion located on a hill overlooking Portland.


Ritzville, Wa.  Ash fall from May 18th eruption.
Prevailing weather patterns took the ash plume into Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho and beyond. Residents of Ritzville in eastern Washington explore the moon like dust. On a positive note, the ash-fall from Mt St Helens is often credited for the richness of the soils in the Palouse Region, famous for it's wheat, pea, and lentil crops.

Source:  "The Mt. St. Helens Volcanic Weatherbook " © Mountain Graphics, 1980

The Internet is rich with the history and background leading up to the Big Blast, which I will not reiterate. This site is one of the better ones; you will be challenged to look up more than a half dozen references!

While most of the ash fall was to the east, changes in weather patterns brought ash south into the Vancouver - Portland area, on several occasions. And of course like everyone else, I had to collect a jar or two.

This is my last jar. When you look at it carefully, you have to marvel at the mechanism that creates millions of tons of this stuff, and blasts it into the atmosphere.

Actually, the jar is not mislabeled. There were a total of three major eruptions; the biggie on May 18th, May 24 and 25th, which dropped ash in Portland, and  June 12th, which resulted in Portland getting a second round of the stuff. Seattle also got a trace.


While it looks pretty and feels soft to the touch, it is composed of silicates, and can damage human lungs and internal combustion engines with equal aplomb. Does this read like something you would be comfortable inhaling?

State Police and other law enforcement entities devised snorkels with filters, to provide safe air for motor vehicles.

This jar had been sealed since I collected the ash in 1980. Years later, when I took the lid off, a strong odor of hydrogen sulfide gas was emitted!



This was early in the morning of May 25, 1980. Looks like snow falling, but that is volcanic ash! Taken from my living room window in North Portland, facing west, the volcano would be to the right ... 60 miles north!

This is what we woke up to on May 25th. Deceptively beautiful. These are the roofs of two other buildings in the small complex where I bivouacked. Several of us spent the day helping the landlord get this off the roofs, before rain turned it into dangerously heavy mud, which would threaten the structures.

Trying to hose the roof down resulted in creating heavy mud, which clogged the drains. It had to be shoveled and swept.

Check the  Mod Squad '80's look! I look like a ding-dong. I cleverly inscribed "Mt. Ash" on my truck. This despite constant warnings by authorities NOT to drive in or breath the ash, which had the composition of grinding grit! That "Mt. Ash" engraving were clearly visible on my vehicle for many years to come.

And, of course I just had to see what was going on in the neighborhood. Notice the lack of motor vehicles, which meant only a few of us were out trying to clog air filters!

And automotive air filters flew off the shelves of parts stores! This photo shows folks navigating in downtown Portland. Not only automotive air filters, but any kind of filter was hard to locate, and commanded a considerable "markup" when located.

The ash was deceptively beautiful. One could hardly avoid touching it. Since it is silica based, cottage industries sprung up with creative people making coffee mugs, icons, and of course, ash trays, out of the stuff.

Thousand of tons of ash and other soils displaced by the eruption slide into Spirit Lake. Spirit Lake outlets into the Toutle River which joins the Cowlitz River at Interstate 5, with the Cowlitz River joining the Columbia River at Longview, Washington.

The Columbia River was shut down until surveys confirmed that a "sand bar" had not been created at the confluence, which would endanger commerce to the Port of Portland.


It is estimated that the amount of sediment dredged and piled onto the river bank, could build a 12 lane highway, 1 foot thick, between New York and Los Angeles!

Initially, the Corps hastelly constructed a barrier to keep crap from entering the drainage system.  But it was clear that a more substantial retention structure (SRS) was needed..  The current SRS was completed in 1989.So much so, the Corps finally had to build a more substantial structure.

But so much debris continues to enter the drainage system that the SRS was over-topped in 2012!


The Columbia River was shut down until surveys confirmed that a "sand bar" had not been created at the confluence, which would endanger commerce to the Port of Portland.

A report issued by the US Geological Survey gives this assessment of potential disruption to railroad operations, should there be renewed activity on Mt St Helens:
  • Rail transportation is less vulnerable to volcanic ash than roads and highways,with disruptions mainly caused by poor visibility and breathing problems for train crews. Moving trains will also stir up fallen ash, which can affect residents living near railway tracks and urban areas through which railway lines run.
  • Fine ash can enter engines and cause increased wear on all moving parts. Light rain on fallen ash may also lead to short-circuiting of signal equipment.
  • Temporary shutdown disruptions caused by poor visibility and breathing problems for train crews, and potential damage to engines and other equipment, can result in the temporary shutdown of rail services or the delay in normal schedules. For example, ten trains in western Montana (USA) were shut down for nearly a day because of 1-2 mm of ash fall resulting from the eruption of Mount St. Helens volcano, 625 km to the west. Rail services were back to normal operations within 3 days.

Mt St Helens today with a Lenticular cloud cap. Elevation 8,363 ft after loosing 1,314 feet during eruption.

Oh! You remember I mentioned the top one square mile of Mt St Helens blew away? Well that land was owned by Burlington Northern (read Northern Pacific!)  Dating back to the days of railroad land grants, the Northern Pacific railroad owned the land covering a large segment of the top of the mountain.

In an effort to protect themselves from accident or injury liability, what with scientists and TV crews landing helicopters on the summit almost daily, Burlington Northern Railroad Loss Prevention asked the US Forest Service (USFS) to declare their property on the summit as closed.

But television crews who had landed on the summit days before were immune to prosecution. They had landed on property just outside the closure area enforced by the USFS.

And it all became a mute point following the eruption; the entire area was scattered over five states!



The joke around town was, "Did the Burlington Northern Railway file an Environmental Impact Statement prior to setting off the explosion, as required by the EPA?" 

The US Forest Service and Burlington Northern swapped parcels of land on August 26, 1982. This was done to facilitate the Mount St Helen's National Volcanic Monument.

Land Swap Finalized









Mt. St. Helens, taken from US 30 (Oregon), with Columbia River Bridge into Longview in the foreground.

First Signs of Life

Washington State Route 503 begins in Orchards, just north of Vancouver.  It runs up through Cougar, famous for the annual D.B. Cooper Where Are You shindigs, around the eastern slope of Mt. St. Helens, terminating at Interstate 5 near Woodland, Washington.

The highway was closed between May 1980 and July 1982. There was a rush of folk anxious to get up close and personal to the devastated mountain.


Words are inadequate to describe the aftermath of a volcano gone awry.


There was a log boom place on Spirit Lake, to keep tree carcasses from jamming up the Toutle River, as explained above.


Here I documenting  the first signs of life back in the Blast Zone. Although the fishes and amphibians in the lakes and ponds did survive the intense blast.


Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium).  The name "fireweed" stems from its ability to colonize areas burned by fire rapidly.

It was one of the first plants to appear after the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980. The first wildlife to reoccupy were the Elk and Deer.

Finally, 3 earthquakes were recorded about Mt.St. Helens today; more than 20 in the past few days.

That's how it all began in 1979.  "Just saying!"

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