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News / Clark County News

Off beat: April Fool’s joke had people blowing their tops weeks before mountain did

The Columbian
Published: May 24, 2010, 12:00am

The 30th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens last week had us going through our big, red binder of 30-year-old Columbian clippings.

During the last few days, we’ve had a chance to retell the big stories about the eruption and update some major issues that still are part of the volcano’s legacy.

Our notebook also contained a few little oddball clippings. The very first story reported the earliest rumblings of the volcano on March 21, 1980, and was headlined, “Quake nothing to get shook over.”

The first eruption was March 27, which gave an East Coast television station just enough time for a really horrible April Fool’s joke. According to the wire service story from Milton, Mass., hundreds of residents of the Boston suburb were shocked on April 1 when WNAC in Boston ran a fake news bulletin. It claimed that a local ski resort had turned into a raging volcano.

They aired film clips of the March 27 eruption of Mount St. Helens, which the station described as volcanic activity on 635-foot-high Great Blue Hill.

Station officials maintained that the story was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and said that a note at the end of the report identified it as fictitious.

“All I know is, we had people crying,” a police lieutenant told a reporter.

The TV producer was fired the next day.

Ownership issues

Another quirky story reflected what literally was the checkered ownership of Mount St. Helens. On April 13, two Seattle TV stations sent helicopters to land their camera crews on the summit of the volcano. It was a showy stunt — and apparently in direct violation of a U.S. Forest Service closure of St. Helens above the tree line.

But it turns out the Forest Service didn’t have jurisdiction over the summit, thanks to the “checkerboard” pattern of a 19th century land grant. Land at the time was distributed in alternating square-mile sections, according to a Washington history Web site, and the snow-capped peak belonged to Burlington Northern Railroad (now BNSF Railway).

After the eruption, the Forest Service and the railroad engineered a land swap, helping create the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. And it was probably a lot more convenient than figuring out where that square mile ended up when the volcano blew.

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.