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Why Auburn shouldn’t ignore Mt. Rainier


Recent headlines stated Mt. Rainier’s threat level was increased. These suggestions came after the release of the 2018 Update to the U.S. Geological Survey National Volcanic Threat Assessment. However, none of the threat levels of Washington’s volcanoes changed from the report published in 2005. The need for Auburn residents to be prepared for the eruption of Mt. Rainier also did not change.

Determining Volcanic Threat Levels

The 2018 Volcanic Threat Assessment is an update based on new details learned in the past 12 years.  Four of Washington’s volcanoes are considered “very high threat;” Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker, and Glacier Peak. Mt. Adams is considered “high threat.”


When determining the threat level of a volcano in the latest report, Supervisory Geologist John Ewert employed an updated scoring matrix.  According to the report, this matrix “consists of 15 hazard factors and 9 exposure factors.”  Each volcano’s total score was tabulated by multiplying the volcano’s hazard and exposure factor ratings together.

Auburn residents have about 96 minutes from the first warning, to evacuate in the event of a severe lahar

Volcanic aviation impact was calculated as a sub-score to assist in distinguishing threat groupings.  This threat score is the product of four hazards (maximum VEI, explosive activity, explosive activity, major explosive activity, and eruption recurrence), plus the two aviation exposure factors.

The hazard score for Mt. Rainier is 13.0, and exposure score is 15.6.  Its total threat level score is 203.2.  Mt. Rainier’s aviation threat level score is 37.1.  Its unrest total is 2.


Brian Terbush, the Earthquake and Volcano Program Coordinator for the Washington Military Department’s Washington State Emergency Management Division, expanded on Mt. Rainier’s seismic and unrest scores. “Mt. Rainier is an active volcano and has seismic activity almost daily.  Its background level of activity is a little more active than Mt. Baker or Glacier Peak.  This is taken into account when deciding which alert level to assign to a volcano (All of the 5 active volcanoes in Washington are “normal,” now),” explained Terbush.

Like Soren’s Eye, the CVO is Always Watching

soren's eye, cvo, always watching, soren's eye gifAccording to their website, the “USGS employs a nationwide volcano alert-level system for characterizing conditions at U.S. volcanoes. These levels are quiet, unrest, and eruption. U.S. Volcano Observatories issue notifications about the status of activity at U.S. volcanoes.

Mt. Rainier, like all of Washington’s volcanos, is under constant monitoring by the Cascades Volcano Observatory (CVO).  “With a well-monitored volcano like Mt. Rainier, it is most likely there will be anywhere from a few days to a week or more of warning before an eruption.  CVO scientists will be able to provide a better estimate on the potential timeline after they begin seeing unrest,” said Terbush.


The USGS volcanic alert system has two alerts.  The first alert updates people on the ground about a volcano’s status.  The second provides airborne ash hazard information to the aviation sector.  To receive Volcano Alert Notifications, sign up at the USGS Volcano Alert Notification website.

How will a Mt. Rainier Eruption Impact Auburn?

Each volcano has distinct eruptive characteristics. However, the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 helps prepare for the eventual eruption of Mt. Rainer. “[Mt. St. Helens] it is a good reference point because it is the only [volcano] that has erupted in Washington in peoples’ memories.  Also, it had an explosive eruption, and an effusive eruption, which mainly just extruded lava.  It produced ash, lahars, lava, pyroclastic flows, [and] ballistics.  Overall, it is a good example of what to expect from a cascade volcano because it displayed the full range of hazards,” explained Terbush.

Most people associate lava flows with volcanic eruptions, thinking this is the biggest danger.  This is not the case with Mt. Rainier and other cascade volcanos.  Their lava is sticky and moves slowly.  “To compare them [to Hawaiian volcanoes], think of pouring water as the Hawaiian lava.  The lava here would be more like molasses,” said Terbush.

City of Auburn Emergency Manager Jerry Thorson explained “historical data shows lahar flows reached Auburn and could impact us again.  Picture a flow of mud and water rushing up the valley from Orting/Sumner, covering roads and impacting buildings along the way. Once over, we could have some secondary impacts of flooding as the mud flow blocks streams and the rivers in our area.

A Lahar Flood after Mount Sinabung’s Eruption on April 18, 2017

Mt. Rainier is not expected to erupt very much ash, based on historical ash deposits.   Winds in Washington typically flow West to East, lowering the chance of ash impact on Auburn.  Should the wind’s direction be aimed at Auburn during an eruption, the air quality would be far worse than what was experienced this summer.

A volcanic eruption in the cascades could produce all these hazards at once.  Alternatively, only one or two hazards may occur at a time, over a long period.  The most important thing is to know the potential dangers and prepare for them.

Don’t Regret Not Being Prepared

According to estimates from the USGS, “Auburn residents have approximately [96 minutes] from the first warning, [on Mt. Rainier], to evacuate in the event of a severe lahar. The short amount of time will necessitate walking to higher ground, as roads will become blocked by debris and traffic.”  To ensure you utilize that time to its fullest, know your closest evacuation point and the route to it.

city of auburn, evacuation map, lahar, mt. rainier, lahar evacuation map
Auburn Lahar Evactuation Map, (Click For Full Image)

Signing up for Auburn’s emergency alerting system, CodeRED will provide you with important alerts, ensuring you have time to act. Click here to sign up.

The first Monday of every month the Lahar siren is tested.  Not all of Auburn can hear the siren.  If you can, learn the sound of this siren.  Time is reduced to approximately 60minutes from the time the sirens sound, as it takes time to activate them.  If you have not signed up for Volcano Alert Notifications or Auburn’s CodeRed emergency alerting system, your time will decrease significantly.

Every family and household, for any emergency, need an emergency plan.  Have an evacuation plan, that includes how you will leave the area and where you will go if you must evacuate your home.  Create meeting points in case you are at separate locations during an emergency. Practice this plan to ensure every family member knows it.

“Have an out of state contact you can call to leave messages for family and loved ones. I have it set up with my uncle in Colorado, and all of our family members have cards with his contact information on them,” added Thorson.

Every household should have an emergency kit with food and water for at least 72 hours, but ideally up to 14 days.  Additional things to include are extra prescription medications, cash, supplies for small children and pets.  Including copies of important family documents saved electronically or in a secure waterproof container is also wise.  These documents may include insurance policies, identification, and bank account records.  You can find a full list of emergency kit supplies on Auburn Emergency Management’s website.

As emergencies can occur anywhere, keeping an emergency supply kit in your car and your workplace is also wise.

CERT: Building Essentials Skills and Capabilities for Any Disaster describes the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) as a program that “educates volunteers about disaster preparedness for the hazards that may impact their area. [It] trains them in basic disaster response skills. Through CERT, the capabilities to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters is built and enhanced.” Auburn’s CERT program has trained over 800 volunteers over the years it’s been in place.

“CERT is important for a couple of reasons.  First [volunteers] are trained to be more resilient to things like a volcanic eruption and are better prepared to survive [it]. They have training on how to develop a plan, how to work with family and neighbors and the basic hazards of an eruption. They are also able to help their neighbors after an event,” said Thorson.

An essential factor of CERT is placing trained, capable, individuals throughout the city to assist after an event.   Because first responders are stretched thin, and hazard often prevent access, a large portion of those rescued after a disaster are rescued by of auburn, VERT program, community emergency response team

Thorson reassured that no prior qualifications were required and that CERT is for everyone.  “Most volunteer participants have no prior medical experience.  Those that have an interest in being better prepared are always welcome in our class. Even if they have physical limitations, part of what we do is to discuss working with the capabilities of the team.”

Emergency Management is currently training a new CERT class.  If you are interested in participating in CERT, the next class will be in the first quarter of 2019, most likely in March.  Check Auburn’s Emergency Management website for more information.


Photographer Bio: William Jacobs provided our header image.  Jacobs has lived in Auburn for seven years and enjoys the city.  In addition to photography he enjoys Zumba and roller skating (“go Auburn Skate!”), and spending time with his lovely wife Carol and their two cats.  You can view more of Jacobs’ photography on his Instagram: @wmbjacobs.







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  1. Marcie Marcie November 21, 2018

    Oh how interesting. I never actually thought about what lava would be like here vs Hawaii. Jeez, I didn’t realize how many mountains near us could erupt!

  2. Marissa Marissa November 21, 2018

    Great tips! I had no idea they were doing so much work on this.

  3. […] training is comprised of 24+ hours of classroom education and hands-on practice in topics including disaster preparedness, emergency management, fire safety/suppression, disaster medical operations, l…, including terrorism. Basic safety equipment is […]

  4. […] Individual and family preparedness is critical to the survival of a natural disaster.  While ‘The Big One’ may not happen in our lifetime, Forson feels it is better to be safe than sorry.  “I liken it to getting in a car.  You hope that you won’t get in a crash, but you wear your seatbelt so that if you do, you will be safer. Preparing now could save you and your loved ones when disaster strikes. Make go bags for your car, your house, your work and talk to your family about your emergency plan and PRACTICE it.” […]

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