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Working together to live safely with our restless mountains

Working together to live safely with our restless mountains

By Brian Terbush
Volcano Program Manager

Can you imagine if ash and steam came from Mount Rainier everyday for years and years on end? Over time, would we get complacent and not think it was such a big deal?

This past February, I had the opportunity to join volcano scientists, emergency managers and community officials from volcanic areas around the world for the 12th Biannual Cities on Volcanoes Conference, in La Antigua Guatemala. This meeting is designed with the intention to be “not just another science conference,” but one specifically about mitigating volcanic hazards for the people who live within their shadows.

On average, there are 40-50 volcanoes erupting around the world at any given time – sometimes more. For many people on this planet, volcanic eruptions are significantly more commonplace and normal occurrences. That includes emergency managers (or Civil Defense agencies) in those places who work on ensuring safety in those areas during eruptions.

We have so much to learn from these groups about how to safely live with our active volcanoes. Whether an eruption occurs with an incredible evacuation that allows everyone to escape unharmed, or when an eruption results in tragedy, and loss of life, there is much to can learn to help prepare us for our next eruption.

During the Cities on Volcanoes meeting, attendees visited Guatemala, and got a chance to be reminded that not everyone around the world has the experience of living next to more serene, calm active volcanoes, like we do in Washington. Prominent peaks around the area are all volcanic, with the Volcan de Agua and Volcan De Fuego, Pacaya, Santa Maria, Acatenango, and more are prominent and visible from many major cities. Even more wild in comparison to our experience in Washington, volcanoes like Fuego show off multiple small ash explosions per day (like the one in the photo below), often many per hour.

These eruptions are a normal part of daily life, though it might sound outlandish to us here in Washington.

Also making volcano mitigation more complicated, while here in Washington, the slopes of our volcanoes are located within National Parks, or National Forests, many people live and work on the slopes of Guatemala’s volcanoes, just like in many other volcanic countries around the world.

An excellent opportunity to learn more about Washington’s hazards and how to prepare for them is during the month of May, which is Volcano Awareness Month in Washington. Experts on volcano science and preparedness will be holding many events, all opportunities to learn about your hazards, and learn from the people whose life work is to study them and mitigate their hazards for the people who live around them. While we all take volcanic hazards very seriously, we try to present information about them in a fun way, to help give you multiple opportunities to get involved and learn.


On June 3, 2018, Volcan de Fuego in Guatemala had an uncharacteristically large eruption, causing devastation to the surrounding communities. Once the ash cleared, more than 200 people were killed and at least 200 more were missing. Tragic eruptions like this around the world are becoming less and less common as volcano monitoring improves, but when does it is up to everyone around the world to learn from these events, and help mitigate the damage they do in the future. We can’t let this keep happening.
During the meeting, we learned of not just the many challenges during the Volcan de Fuego eruption but also all of the work done to ensure a tragedy doesn’t occur again.

Guatemalan officials presented us with two very different stories of what happened during the June 3, 2018 eruption. At La Reunion, a golf course and resort with a gorgeous view of the Fuego volcano, warning of an approaching pyroclastic flow came, and the resort evacuated guests to a nearby safe area. The resort is still closed to this day - see photographs below showing the devastation from June 2018 with massive boulders that were part of the flow still smashed through the building itself. However, the successful evacuation meant that no one was killed in this location.

Further down the slope was the community of San Miguel Los Lotes, where unfortunately, tragedy struck during the eruption. At the time of the eruption, the volcano was only monitored by one seismometer, which intermittently didn’t work, or had breaks in its communication with scientists in the area, due to mechanical difficulties with the eruption’s ash cloud. As a result of this interference, and dark and ash clouds preventing visible confirmation of the moving pyroclastic flow, warning about the danger from the pyroclastic flow that damaged La Reunion did not arrive in time at San Miguel Los Lotes. When that warning did finally arrive, it was met by many with confusion, because the community was mostly unaware they could be in danger from Pyroclastic flows, being far from the volcano. In this case, confusion unfortunately led to few people being able to flee the danger as the community was overcome by hot gas and ash.

(Left) Remains of the community of San Miguel Los Lotes after the Pyroclastic flow of June 3, 2018, with the Fuego Volcano in the background. (Right) Remains of the La Reunion In Guatemala – note the large boulders in the window, and Fuego Volcano with a small ash cloud erupting in the background.

Guatemalan Civil Defense (CONRED) and volcano monitoring agencies (INSIVUMEH) brought an international audience together at this conference to emphasize the issues that led to tragedy on this day, so that all of us in our own Cities on Volcanoes, can learn, and not repeat these hazards. Never again.

Even more importantly, they shared the work they’ve been doing since the June 2018 eruption to improve volcano monitoring and alerting, as well as increasing awareness of volcanic hazards in the community. It is critical for people to know where to get alerted about their volcano hazards, where they will get information, and what to do when they receive it. It is also critical for them to trust the sources of that information, so Guatemalan authorities are spending time together with the authorities.


With five active volcanoes in Washington, and the very observant U.S. Geological Cascades Volcano Observatory (USGS CVO), we can consider ourselves lucky to have the monitoring capacity we have – Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainier are two of the most well-monitored active volcanoes on the planet. We can also consider ourselves fortunate that we haven’t had any major eruptions in many years – not since 2008 – and it’s been even longer since we’ve had an eruption that resulted in injury and death, back in 1980. However, in a way, this also poses the problem of potentially leading to complacency. Since many of us have never even experienced a volcanic eruption in Washington, how will we know what to expect? How do we know how to properly prepare for these future events?

This conference also allowed an opportunity for those of us in Washington to share the work we’ve done to help mitigate volcano hazards with the international community. More importantly, we had the opportunity to learn strategies from these groups who deal with volcanic eruptions more frequently.

Brian Terbush (left) and Chief Zane Gibson (right) present on Washington’s volcano mitigation efforts to audiences at the Cities on Volcanoes Conference.

I had the opportunity to share and present details about Washington’s plan to streamline volcano communications by creating a timeline to share with communications partners. Volcanic eruptions are a time when a lot of information is coming out and frequently changing, but first responders need to know exactly where the information they will need to save lives will be coming from, in what format, and how long they should expect to have to wait to get that information. Washington Emergency Management Division has been working with partners around the state on developing a tool like this for our first responders, to help communicate more clearly with partners.

Washington also was fortunate to have another excellent representative - Chief Zane Gibson from Central Pierce Fire and Rescue presented to the international communities about his work with the City of Orting, and the East Pierce Interlocal Coalition (EPIC) coordinating and improving Mt. Rainier Lahar Evacuation Drills (more about this year’s drill here). Organizing and running these drills is a massive effort, which takes many community members working together, but we’ve seen how helpful it is in building awareness of volcano safety in the community.

How important is this international collaboration? Chief Gibson shared in his presentation how he was inspired to help bring this drill by participating in an earlier bi-national exchange with Colombia. Learning about the success of evacuation drills in Colombia, and how they helped an entire community survive a massive lahar from the Nevado del Huila Volcano during an eruption in 2012.

Some major highlights and lessons learned from Guatemala and other countries? As is always the case with what we learn after emergencies, both in the U.S. and abroad – communication can always be improved. We need to spend time while the volcanoes are not actively erupting, sharing information about the volcanoes, their hazards and most importantly, where everyone can go for more information during volcanic unrest.

While Washington is a state where people fortunately do not live on the slopes of our volcanoes, or even live in the areas where Near-volcano hazards like pyroclastic flows will reach, there are still over 100,000 Washingtonians living in river valleys where lahars, or volcanic mudflows, are a hazard. Also, Millions of people from Washington and beyond travel to our 5 active volcanoes throughout the year to see these amazing mountains. All of the people living, working, or playing in volcano hazards zones need to understand the potential hazards, how they can be alerted about them, and what they can do to be safer when these occur.

Whether we’re in a location where our volcanoes are actively erupting, or one where they are just an incredible part of our state’s skyline – we have to be aware that they can switch from one to the other, and that will impact our lives. For everyone living in, on, and around active volcanoes, it is important to work together and learn about our common hazards, and how we can learn from one another.

It’s tragic that the eruption of Volcan de Fuego happened and caused the devastation and loss it did, but we’re grateful to our partners in Guatemala, and all around the international community, who are taking steps to learn from this. Together, we can make sure that an eruption like this doesn’t have the same devastating impacts for anyone else around the world.