Perhaps the most iconic photo of the Mount St. Helens eruption is one with a Ford Pinto in the foreground. Sure, there are some more amazing photos of the destruction and of the volcanic explosion itself, but this one tends to resonate among car people and many others because it takes something routine like visiting the forest and shows how horridly it can go wrong.
Richard Lasher was on his way to Spirit Lake with his Pinto and dirt bike when Mt. St. Helens erupted in front of him. He actually managed to escape the 300-400°C hot pyroclastic flow by car, and after the car broke down due to ash in the engine, by motorcycle pic.twitter.com/Qro6XJSqd1
— History_of_Geology (@Geology_History) May 18, 2023
The origins of this photo have been pretty muddy over time. Some on the internet claim that the photographer was found dead with his film under him, and that sounds credible because that actually happened, but to someone else. It took years of research and digging, but Hemmings managed to dig the whole story up. The photographer, Richard Lasher, survived, but only because he decided to sleep in that morning and not leave as early as planned.
If he had gotten to his destination, or even just had managed to cross one more ridgeline, he would likely have not survived. He only managed to escape because he left right after taking the photos, drove until the car wouldn’t work, and then used the motorcycle to escape the rest of the way. Dozens of others weren’t so lucky.
When The Routine Doesn’t Let You See The Risks
What Lasher’s story really drives home is that his day started out very routine. Like many people, he liked to get out and enjoy the outdoors on days off. According to Hemmings, pretty much the whole Pacific Northwest knew the volcano was probably going to blow, but that had been going on for months. Despite the theoretical danger, dozens of people stayed in the area. Some came to the area intentionally and stayed, hoping to get some good photos and data, or just to see the show. Like the others, Lasher probably didn’t think it would be that bad if the mountain were to blow, so he wanted to go enjoy the area.
You can probably see where I’m going with this, but complacency can be even worse, even if not as deadly. But, I’ll come back to the people who lost their lives after I talk about how little the eruption mattered to mine growing up.
I was born after the 1980 eruption. As a kid, I remember somebody saying something about it a few times, but within a few years in another part of the United States, it wasn’t a big story for years later in the public mind. Growing up near El Paso, all of the frightening things of nature seemed so far away. Hurricanes happened on the coast. Tornadoes happened on the plains. Things like volcanic eruptions happened in Hawaii or Japan or Indonesia. I didn’t even know about the eruption’s serious nature until sometime in the 1990s, when there was a TV special on the anniversary of the event. But, it was still so far away.
When I was in college, hysteria over the Yellowstone volcano seemed to hit a peak. Since then, scientists have figured out and the rest of us are starting to get a clue that the volcano isn’t “overdue” for an eruption and that it isn’t going to happen any minute. The likelihood of any eruption (even a small one) happening in any of our lifetimes is very low. But, my childhood idea that the Lower 48 is safe from extreme events was still shattered. While the issue of volcanoes was real for people living in the Pacific Northwest, it became part of reality for me when I saw my town on the maps.
The Moment When It Becomes Real
While this threat is extremely unlikely to materialize in my lifetime, I still keep a broom and a ladder on hand for my solar panels just in case. No matter how small the threat, there comes a moment when a person realizes it’s not just imaginary, hypothetical, or theoretical. That’s the point when at least some action starts happening to change course and avoid becoming a victim.
Ideally, you get to that point mentally before the event happens. For most people in the Pacific Northwest, you’d think the idea that a mountain might blow up was enough to get people to stay the heck away, or at least go hang out near some other mountains, but hindsight is 20/20. USGS scientists determined how dangerous the volcano was in the weeks leading up to the biggest eruption, and encouraged state and local officials to close the area. When the big show didn’t happen quickly enough, there was a lot of public pressure to reopen the area, which the USGS resisted. Fortunately, the public’s desire to recreate in the area didn’t win out, and the continued closure of the area kept the death toll in the dozens instead of the thousands.
Clearly, the story of Richard Lasher isn’t an isolated one, as many people ignored the warnings when something didn’t happen fast enough. Even afterwards, Lasher tried to return to the area the next day after almost dying to retrieve his car and get more photos, and was shocked when a helicopter landed in front of him to take him to jail. USGS scientists also underestimated the power of the coming eruption, with even their remote research outposts getting destroyed (killing the scientists).
Sadly, The Moment Often Doesn’t Arrive Fast Enough
With this example in mind, and the recent experience we had with a pandemic, climate issues don’t seem so insane, do they? If people could ignore and vastly underestimate the danger of a volcano, and I could grow up not thinking it was something to even consider despite it being very real just a handful of years before I was born, then clearly something a lot more slow-moving would be tougher to convince people to be concerned with.
It might just be that human beings don’t respond to the idea of danger very well when it sits too far outside of the routine. Instead, it might be better to cast the solutions to the problem as opportunities to chase instead of hazards to avoid, because our species clearly doesn’t like to avoid hazards as much as we claim.
Featured image courtesy of DALL·E
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