From forest to moonscape

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Having been employed by the US Forest Service for 25 years in many Oregon locales, I had fought many large project forest fires throughout the Western U.S. In 1980, I had been working in the Portland Regional Office of the Forest Service and enjoyed being one of the incident commanders with a team of overhead that numbered 34 experts in their fields that included fire operations, planning, service, finance, public information, camp management, security, fleet management, air operations and many others.

Sunday May 18, 1980, was a warm, quiet, peaceful spring morning. I was alerted by my Aloha, Ore., neighbors to cast an eye to the northeast from my back yard. This was a start to an interesting couple of days. My incident command team was on standby for the week starting that day, and were probably going to receive a call concerning the eruption. Later that morning, I did answer the call and request for my team to mobilize for action on Mount St. Helens. At that time, there were multitudes of static electricity lightning strikes coming out of the cloud of ash and there were about thirty thousand acres with many fires near the mountain.

We were instructed to set up a temporary camp in a motel in Gresham, Ore., until sufficient information concerning fires could be gathered, and planning for a large fire operation could start. Since the team had to gather from around the Pacific Northwest, we were not all in place until that evening. Meanwhile, many reports of heavy lightning continued, but skepticism abounded since a huge ash cloud was flowing to high altitudes in a northeast direction.

At daylight on Monday, May 19, I was informed that an Oregon National Guard Huey helicopter and pilots were coming to pick me up to reconnoiter the eruption area and determine the extent of fire activity. In a short time, we were airborne and headed for “The Mountain.” One major caution was to not fly under the ash plume because of the abrasiveness of the ash if ingested into the turbine engines. We were able to fly around the north, west and south sides of the mountain with no problem. The northeast to east quadrant was the danger area. As we flew, I was thinking of the words of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they described their moon landings. Other than complete devastation with millions of trees down and pointing away from the blast, I felt I was observing a moonscape. No color other than various shades of gray could be seen. It really was an eerie experience. It was obvious that tremendous force and change had occurred. I managed to spot about a dozen small wisps of smoke coming out of a sea of volcanic ash that smothered the large volume of fire and the immediate terrain. It was obvious that my fire team would not be needed this day. We returned to the airfield at Troutdale and wrapped up the reconnaissance.

My team and I headed home with mixed emotions, but relieved that we didn’t have to breathe volcanic ash for a long time. One rather significant detail of my flight was that one of my colleagues asked me to take pictures of the eruption and ground area with his camera. Being a real camera novice, I had a setting wrong in the camera, and got nothing usable for pictures. Most annoying! I have only my memories.

William D. Shenk, USFS retired. Living in Vancouver since 1992 retirement.