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Volcano drill proves survival absolutely possible

More than 45,000 students and staff across East Pierce County participated in the world’s largest lahar drill on Thursday, March 21. Looming nearby is the 14,410-foot Mt. Rainier volcano, which, in a worst case-scenario, could send a sprawling mud flow called a lahar into nearby communities. This is the third time the drill has happened, which first started in 2019.

The event was supported by a team of local government and school districts, first responders, emergency managers, volunteers and state and federal agencies all working together.

Students from All Saints School walk in front of the Washington State Fairgrounds.

For example, students from three schools – Meeker Elementary, Puyallup High School and All Saints School all took to the streets of Downtown Puyallup just after 9 a.m. and started walking to an assembly point at the Washington State Fairgrounds. They were accompanied by faculty wearing yellow and orange vests and police officers stopping traffic when necessary. Above, in the skies, drones and a helicopter kept an eye on the situation and broadcasted visuals back to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Puyallup. The Washington Emergency Management Division had staff at that EOC and helped with the planning of the drill.

Elsewhere, other schools in Puyallup, Sumner-Bonney Lake, Orting, White River and Carbonado also participated.

“It’s incredible to see the work these communities living in the shadow of an active volcano are doing to keep their people safe!” said Brian Terbush, earthquake/volcano program manager at Washington Emergency Management Division.

Staff in the Puyallup EOC watch students converge using drones.

More than 75 public and private schools participated in the drill, including 15,000 students practicing their walking evacuation routes. Another 30,000 students located above the valley floors practiced their shelter-in-place procedures which would be important during a volcanic eruption for keeping everyone safe inside, while also helping to keep the roads clear for evacuations and first responder vehicles.

Some schools walked their full evacuation route to high ground, practicing where they would go to be safe during a lahar. Other schools walked part of their route, then spent time reviewing the rest of the walk to high ground. Both types of drills help ensure that students are familiar with the routes to get to safety from their schools.

Staff from USGS high five Meeker Elementary students.

Mt. Rainier is one of Washington’s five active volcanoes. According to the U.S. Geological Survey Cascades Volcano Observatory (USGS CVO), the agency in charge of monitoring the activity of those volcanoes, all are currently at a Normal, Background level of activity, with none indicating that they are showing signs of eruption. USGS CVO uses instruments to watch these volcanoes closely, to help ensure that an eruption won’t occur without warning.

However, Mt. Rainier has a very small possibility of having a lahar, a volcanic mud flow, that could occur during a time when the volcano is not erupting. It could be caused by a landslide on the southwest slopes of Mt. Rainier, where old rocks on the mountain have been weakened by hundreds of years of exposure to hot gases and water. This is the main reason for the siren system in these river valleys – one additional way to warn the thousands of people living in the valley that a lahar is coming, and evacuation is necessary.

The USGS released updated lahar arrival times two years ago. How much time do people in the Puyallup and Nisqually River valleys have to evacuate in the event of a lahar? The video notes Puyallup, for instance, might have three- to four-hours in one of the worst case scenarios from a non-volcanic event. You can find these, and learn more about Mt. Rainier’s lahar hazards to communities downstream here.

Schools practicing lahar evacuation drills use these timings to understand how long they have to reach safety.

“When students demonstrate that they can walk their evacuation routes to high ground in the time they have available, that shows everyone else in the community that they can do it, too!” Terbush said. “This is a really important lesson we want everyone to understand from this drill – a lahar, a massive surging wall of mud, sounds like an impossible hazard to survive, but walking to safety is something students have proven they can do, multiple times.”

Knowing evacuation routes and practicing them ahead of time is critically important. When a lahar occurs, it will be a stressful situation. Remembering the practice, and that they have walked the routes before will help them to do it well, even if the lahar happens at a challenging time, like in the middle of a rainy night. We encourage everyone to learn and practice their evacuation routes. For Mt. Rainier, evacuation routes can be found at: MOUNT RAINIER ACTIVE VOLCANO | Pierce County, WA - Official Website.

In addition to all the school evacuation and shelter-in-place drills, the East Pierce Interlocal Coalition ( took this opportunity to practice how they would coordinate and support evacuation during a real volcanic eruption and lahar. The cities, county, police and fire departments, volunteers and state and federal agencies all worked together to track student evacuation progress, and ensure everyone stayed safe throughout their walks.

“During a real eruption and evacuation, these groups would all be working on helping everyone evacuate – opening up routes, providing medical assistance, and preparing shelters for those evacuating the lahar,” says Maximilian Dixon, Washington Emergency Management Division’s hazards and outreach program supervisor. “Working together now to practice roles and responsibilities during this drill will help everyone serve their communities more effectively next time there’s an emergency. This drill took a lot of work to put together, but the experience gained by the community and the students involved is so valuable!”

Dixon with Washington Emergency Management Division.

The March 21 Drill was an excellent example of what communities can do to be better prepared for their hazards. Whether the next emergency they need to respond to is a lahar, or something far more common like a flood, the people in these communities will be more prepared, and that’s something worth celebrating.

To learn more about volcanic hazards in Washington, and how you can get alerted before they occur, visit