By Ryan Sabalow
Posted December 17, 2011
While a catastrophic eruption of Mt. Shasta or Lassen Peak could destroy huge swaths of the north state, local counties recently have approved vague disaster plans that assume critical details will be worked out on the spot.
Geologists at the U.S. Geological Survey say there’s a one in three or one in four chance Mt. Shasta could erupt in north state residents’ lifetimes.
While Shasta and Siskiyou counties’ “hazard mitigation plans,” drafted this fall, discuss the various risks associated with an eruption and identify key facilities at risk, the documents offer no specifics on how the counties would handle the mass evacuations of entire towns. They don’t address how they’d cope with choking clouds of toxic gas and ash, highways buried in volcanic debris or lava flows and threats to power transmission lines or other mass infrastructure failures.
Shasta County’s plan has been approved by state officials, although it’s awaiting clearance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Siskiyou County’s plan, which remains open for public comment through the end of the month, is similarly short on specifics.
Instead, the plans primarily rely on the assumption that federal geologists monitoring the volcanoes would give county officials plenty of warning, enough time for them to decide what to do.
But volcanic experts caution that’s not always a given.
When Mt. St. Helens first erupted in 1980, geologists had about a week’s notice, said Carolyn Driedger, a hydrologist and outreach director for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash.
“Yes, they do give warning, but it’s highly variable how much warning,” she said.
She said geologists in Oregon and Washington have met with local governments to develop “coordination plans that spell out precisely what to do if we have volcanic unrest,” so “it’s not unusual for you to question” why north state disaster planners haven’t done the same.
County defends plan
Pat Minturn, Shasta County’s public works director, said the county plan intentionally avoids some details. He said recent large-scale urban disasters like the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 proved it’s impossible to plan for every scenario.
“It always throws you a left hook out of nowhere,” he said.
In interviews, officials say they’re primarily counting on systems of interagency aid to bring in help from other counties and state and federal authorities. Once told by geologists an eruption is likely, the groups will sit down and map out an action plan, based on each agency’s specialty, officials say.
“I get the sense the trick with a volcano scenario isn’t so much the technical disaster response,” said Rick Kyle, chief the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s Shasta-Trinity units. “The challenge will be the coordination of players who don’t normally play because volcanoes don’t happen every day. (The hazard mitigation plans) bring up the awareness of the potential, and they bring up the background, but until you get into a drill and you do tabletop exercises and engage the drill, you’re feeling it out as you go along.”
Capt. Dave Dean, who heads disaster response for the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, said as far as he knows, no such drills have ever been done, although local counties have performed other types of mock scenarios geared toward disasters they’re most likely to encounter like floods and fires.
Meanwhile, the counties’ plans primarily call on residents to be ready to flee or hunker down and be self-reliant should an eruption occur, although Kyle acknowledged not every north state resident will be ready.
“Volcanoes are going to be a once-in-a-lifetime event,” he said. “Fires are almost annually, and they’re still not prepared a lot of the time. I think if you go that model, there are going to be some success cases. There are going to be some cases of failure.”
A disaster-prone north state
But local disaster planners say they have something on their side if one of the mountains does erupt: Nearly every year they respond to disasters similar to the effects of a volcanic eruption.
They say almost every summer, forest fires force the evacuations of families, sometimes by the hundreds. Wildfire smoke also chokes valley towns with lung-irritating smoke, not unlike a cloud of volcanic ash.
The disaster planners say snowstorms also are similar to the ways in which an eruption could block roads, stop freeway traffic and shut down power for days in mountain towns.
Floods caused by volcanic mudflows and melting glaciers aren’t that different from the floods that sometimes strike the north state, the emergency planners say.
Although volcanic-related floods aren’t specifically addressed in Shasta County’s hazard plan, officials do discuss at length the scenario of a springtime storm causing Shasta Dam to spill over, something that’s never happened in the structure’s 66-year history.
While Shasta County’s plan doesn’t address evacuation routes and centers, officials say they already have such plans in place.
Dean said several years ago the county received a state grant to draft emergency evacuation plans for catastrophic wildfires. He said the plans are as applicable to a volcanic evacuation as they would be for a hazardous materials spill, a flood or a SWAT team standoff with an armed gunman.
“It’s all-inclusive, the way we wrote it,” he said.
Dean said printed copies of the evacuation plans are in the county’s emergency services office and not available online.
Counties’ plans call on people to act
A volcanic eruption also provides an advantage over a forest fire, flood or even a snowstorm, county disaster planners say.
Typically, a series of earthquakes and increasing volcanic activity on the mountain would signal a pending eruption, said Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko.
“It could be something that takes place over years before there’s anything,” Bosenko said. “If there is something developing, you’re going to have a lot of lead time before the volcanic activity starts to develop.”
Bosenko and others who helped draft Shasta County’s emergency plan say after officials receive warnings from geologists about increasing volcanic activity and the likely areas impacted by an eruption, the information would be passed through the media to the public.
Regional emergency telephone notification systems could be activated to notify residents of an evacuation. The region’s network of ham radio operators also could be called on to help if more traditional communication systems crash, said Robert Rowley, Siskiyou County’s emergency services coordinator.
He said his county also recently received a $250,000 federal grant to install a series of emergency weather radio transmitters in local hospitals, public buildings and evacuation centers to alert those there. Rowley said local residents should consider buying smaller, portable versions of the radios, popular with those living in hurricane country, so they too can hear the alerts.
Shasta’s disaster plan urges residents to be ready to act on their own behalf when officials give notice an eruption is imminent.
The plan calls on families to develop an “emergency communication plan,” so family members could reunite in case they’re separated.
Shasta County’s plan says residents need to know community warning systems and emergency plans, and they need to be prepared for mudflows and flash floods, landslides and rockfalls, earthquakes, ashfall and acid rain.
“Residents should make evacuation plans and if living in a known volcanic hazard area, plan a route out and have a backup route in mind,” the plan reads.
But the information county residents need to plan such a scenario isn’t anywhere to be found on the county’s website.
While the Shasta County’s website includes the county’s “Emergency Operations Plan” that divvies up responsibilities among local governments and provides checklists for the agencies to follow in a disaster, the documents don’t include evacuation maps or other information specifically geared toward helping residents. There are no maps of specific volcanic hazard zones.
Siskiyou County’s website is similarly lacking volcano-related information.
‘Something to think about’
Rowley said local residents are pretty well versed in disaster scenarios, because they’re used to being required to evacuate on a moment’s notice. They’re also used being self-sufficient for long periods of time, he said.
“Pretty much people up here are in tune with their environment,” Rowley said.
Mark Ghilarducci, the former chief deputy director of the California Emergency Management Agency and former coordinating officer at FEMA, agreed.
“The more you’re faced with those kinds of adverse situations, the better prepared you are to deal with them,” said Ghilarducci, who’s now employed with a private disaster-planning firm in Folsom.
But many in Mount Shasta haven’t given much thought to the fact the scenic peak after which their town’s named might soon erupt, said Laura Turner, the owner of Mountain Song, a natural foods store in the town.
She said she’s lived for the last 18 years under the mountain’s shadow, but never really thought to put a plan in place for when it erupts.
“Most people up here don’t think about it as a live volcano,” she said. “It’s just this big beautiful mountain.”
Not everyone in the north state is as unprepared.
Patty Hogan, a 44-year-old Palo Cedro mother of five children, said she and her husband, Eric, have disaster plans, stores of food and emergency kits ready to go. She credits the family’s readiness to their Mormon faith, in which church members are encouraged to be self-sufficient should a calamity arise.
She admits, though, most of the planning has revolved around wildfires, not volcanoes.
“I think it’s something to think about,” she said.
‘I hope they can handle it’
In his book “Fire & Ice: The Cascade Volcanoes” and its 2005 revised version “Fire Mountains of the West: The Cascade and Mono Lake Volcanoes,” Sacramento State University professor Stephen L. Harris paints a bleak picture of how north state communities would react to a Mt. Shasta eruption.
In a fictional scenario, he describes business leaders fighting evacuation plans because of worries the negative publicity would hurt tourism and the local economy.
Some residents near the mountain have to be forcibly removed from their homes.
When the mountain does erupt in his scenario, it completely obliterates several north state highways including Interstate 5 and Highway 97 and destroys the towns of Weed and Mount Shasta.
Harris’ fictional eruption happens in the late summer after most of the snow has already melted off the mountain, yet he says Bureau of Reclamation officials would still be required to open Shasta Dam’s flood gates, flooding the Sacramento Valley to prepare for a gush of eruption runoff.
A humanities professor who says he’s fascinated by the Cascade geology, Harris based his fictional account on the Mt. St. Helens eruption in 1980. He also researched Mt. Lassen’s eruptions early last century in which small towns and farmsteads below the mountain were flooded by gushing mudflows.
He said he based the public’s response to the pending eruption on the reaction some in Mono County had in the 1980s when geologists began issuing plans on what they’d do if the Long Valley Caldera ever erupted.
“Those in the ski industry were very, very angry with the USGS putting out an evaluation of volcanic hazards in the area,” he said. “A friend of mine received a death threat.”
He’d hoped his books would “awaken public consciousness.”
Harris said that although volcanoes are “wonderful, scenic backdrops,” when they do erupt, they could easily destroy the homes and business of people who build near them, particularly down valley.
He said he hopes county officials understand that.
“I hope they’re right,” Harris said. “I hope they can handle it.”