Arlene Blair, center, of Clearlake, Calif., and her grandson Phillip Whitney listen as Arnel Whitney of Anchor Point uses a cell phone to notify family that Blairs flight out of Kenai was delayed following Wednesdays eruption of Mount Augustine volcano. Blair missed connections in Anchorage but said she understood the reason for the delay. If only the volcano could have waited another day, Phillip Whitney said.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
It started with a whimper and ended with a bang.
A rumored eruption of Augustine Volcano last Thursday flooded Homer Police and the Homer Volunteer Fire Department with calls from worried citizens. That wasn’t true but that was then, and this is now.
At 4:44 a.m. Wednesday, Augustine erupted, and then blew again at 5:15 a.m. Scientists called the eruptions minor. No monitoring stations on the island were damaged. A Web camera looking west showed the summit shrouded in clouds Wednesday afternoon, with fresh mud and debris flows, or lahars, streaming down the side of the mountain.
The two explosions produced an ash plume that reached 30,000 feet and drifted northeast and northwest about 30 miles by daylight Wednesday. Except for a false report in Clam Gulch that later turned out to be ice fog, no communities reported ash falling on the Kenai Peninsula, said Scott Walden, emergency management coordinator for the Office of Emergency Management, Kenai Peninsula Borough.
Wind conditions caused a high-altitude ash cloud that stayed on the west side of Cook Inlet, Walden said. It was expected to dissipate over the Susitna River Valley. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation issued a health alert for a light ashfall on the west side of Cook Inlet, but nothing for the Kenai Peninsula.
No tsunami waves were reported or expect to be generated by the Wednesday morning eruptions.
All Kenai Peninsula Borough School District schools opened as usual, except for a scheduled holiday in Nanwalek. No airports were closed. Some airlines halted morning flights until daylight, Walden said. The Federal Aviation Administration issued an ash advisory for Wednesday morning.
The eruption followed the pattern scientists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory said would happen. While “chugging,” or bursts of steam and gas as seen last week, suggested a possible eruption, scientists said the best sign of an imminent eruption would be a ramping up of seismic activity.
Tuesday afternoon, that’s what happened. Starting about 3 p.m., earthquake activity increased markedly. At 9:10 p.m., AVO raised the level of concern for Augustine from Code Yellow, where it had been since Nov. 29, to Code Orange, the next highest level in its four-color system.
Green indicates a volcano is in its normal, dormant state. Yellow indicates increased seismic activity with the potential for an eruption. At Code Orange, small ash eruptions are either expected or evident, plumes of ash may rise as much as 25,000-feet above sea level and local seismic disturbances are recorded.
Following the first eruption, at 5:50 a.m., AVO went to Code Red, the highest level of concern.
That may not be the last of Augustine.
“This is kind of a little throat clearing blast,” said Rick Wessels, a U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist with AVO.
Wessels said no lava has been seen spewing out of the summit dome. For the past few weeks, scientists have been monitoring a dome of lava rising through the volcano from sea level to the 4,134-foot summit. Satellite observations have shown increased temperatures on the volcano, but until AVO completed observation flights, it could not be confirmed by press time if lava had emerged.
AVO sent a fixed-wing flight out Wednesday afternoon. Because of the danger of ash, no helicopter flights went out. Fixed-wing flights can measure gas plumes and heat changes on the volcano.
After Wednesday’s eruptions, seismic activity slowed down to a level similar to what had been seen since last November. In its official release, AVO said it is likely that stronger seismicity and further volcanic activity will resume.
“A bigger eruption is still a possible scenario,” Wessels said. “We expect to see this pick up again.”
The Homer Public Health Center advised people to listen for health advisories from DEC and the Alaska Department of Health. Leslie Callaway, the public health nurses’ team leader, advised people vulnerable to illness, such as the very young, elderly and those with respiratory conditions, to discuss any concerns about ash with their doctors.
Precautions to take in the event of an ash fall include wearing dust masks, removing contact lenses, covering skin and wearing goggles. The health center is keeping contact with the state emergency coordination center. Nurses also are calling clients with special health concerns to make sure they’re prepared.
As wind carried Augustine ash toward the northeast on Wednesday morning, Jackie Wilder, with Lake and Peninsula Airline in Port Alsworth, had her eye on the sky, but didn’t see any ash. Yet.
“It’s looking pretty normal here,” Wilder told the Homer News. “We do not have any ash at all on the ground and there’s nothing in the air. There are kind of high clouds, and we can’t see anything, but I’m not surprised. If the winds aren’t very strong, it takes awhile to get here.”
With a light wind blowing out of the southeast, Mitch Coe, caretaker at the Koksetna Wilderness Lodge near Lake Clark, said no ash had fallen in the area by noon, but he was certain it was headed his way.
“It’s awful black over here,” said Coe shortly before noon. “I can’t see any of the mountains. This time of day it should be lightening up quite a bit. It’s just dark and ugly.”
As soon as Coe learned of the eruption, he immediately began covering up machines, his woodpile and ensured the windows were closed on the lodge’s generator building.
Each of the borough school district’s 44 schools has a plan in place in the event of a volcanic eruption, according to Superintendent Donna Peterson. Included in the plan is sheltering students in-place in the event of an ashfall.
Residents also were considering the safety of pets and livestock.
According to information provided by the USGS, during an ashfall, pets should be kept indoors. If they go out, they should be brushed or vacuumed before being let back inside. Make sure livestock have clean food and water. And keep animals out of dusty setting.
Jerry Nybakken, a Soldotna veterinarian who specializes in large animals, recommended getting animals and their food under shelter in the event of an ashfall.
“It’s pretty much the same as what you’ll have with human beings,” Nybakken said. “Minimize exercise levels. Keep breathing rates down as much as possible, keep under cover and in a shelter of some kind. Ash in food and water should be avoided.”
A moistened cloth over the face of horses or cattle can be helpful in filtering out ash. Haystacks should be covered. If animals’ eyes are irritated and watering, they should be flushed with a saline solution.
Walden said the borough OEM is working closely with all agencies on the peninsula to coordinate notification and update information as needed. Emergency officials advised listening to local radio stations for the latest information. Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said if an ashfall hits Homer, the city will activate its emergency operations center. That wasn’t done Wednesday morning.
The borough OEM has links on current volcanic activity, school district emergency plans and readiness information at www.borough.kenai.ak.us/emergency. Walden advised citizens to prepare now for a possible ashfall.
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