Keeping Life Clean in Volcanic Ash

Here in the Pacific Northwest we know about volcanoes. Many people who live here remember the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens in 1980. That is the last major eruption we’ve had in the continental United States. Then we get reports of that same volcano showing eruption activity in 2004 and geologists say it’s the most likely volcano to erupt again in our lifetime. Plus, most of us in the Puget Sound area have a gorgeous view of Mt. Rainier, another threatening volcano. Then factor in the other two Washington volcanoes that are on the “most likely to erupt” list and we definitely have a reason to prepare.

Don’t think you’re safe from an eruption just because you don’t live in Washington. Alaska is full of volcanoes on the danger list as well as some from Oregon and California. Though the most concerning US volcanoes are located on the West Coast, there are a few other speckled across the country including the Yellowstone Caldera in Wyoming which is classified as a super volcano. In Colombia, Nevado del Huila which erupted in 2008 and Galeras which erupted in 1993 killing 9 people. There are volcanoes in Mexico, Iceland, Japan, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo all showing signs of danger.

Mt. Saint Helens in 1980
Mt. Saint Helens in 1980

I believe in prepping for anything, but my current locale leads me to prioritize volcanic eruption high up on the list. The cloud of volcanic ash will affect every part of your life. Air and drinking water will all be contaminated with volcanic ash which contains pulverized rock and glass. Something you don’t want to be breathing or drinking. If you need to bug out, your vehicle is not going to run well when the intake is full of ash and your visibility could be near zero. If you live in an area in close enough proximity to a volcano, some extra measures in your preps could go a long way to keeping you safe during and after an eruption.

Air Quality:

Keep some extra dust masks or respirators for you and your family. If you go with a respirator, keep at least ten extra filters for each mask. If you use dust masks, keep at least ten for each member of your family or survival party.  Respirators come in three levels: FFP1, FFP2 and FFP3. The higher the number, the more particulates it filters.  Make sure the masks are of good quality and fit with a tight seal around the outside edges.

Water Quality:

The volcanic ash that falls from the sky as a result of an eruption can make water supplies unsafe to drink. It’s always best to have some sealed water to drink in case of emergency, but if your backup water plan is something like a rain barrel or a small stream, it is bound to become undrinkable. You can keep a pH meter or pH test strips in your emergency kit to ensure your water is not too acidic. You should always disconnect and cover any water catchment systems. If the pH of the water is low (acidic) you can dissolve a couple boxes of baking soda into water and dump that into the water barrel ever 2-4 weeks to raise the pH. Of course, any water collected from outside sources should already be charcoal filtered and boiled to remove bacteria and this should also remove lead and copper content.


The ash that blows out during a volcanic eruption can travel high enough to disrupt commercial airline flights and spread out many miles from the volcano. There can be days of thick ash at ground level making visibility near nonexistent. If you feel you have to drive in these conditions, keep headlights on low and go very slow. Try not to use water on your windshield to clean it if you can as it will turn the ash into a paste that will just smear on your windshield.



Your vehicle was design to drive in fairly clean air. It has an air intake filter that will catch minor particulates, but will become completely clogged within minutes of driving through volcanic ash. If you live in proximity to a volcano with a good chance of eruption, you should do some pre planned modifications ahead of time to your bug out vehicle. Most newer vehicles have built in filtration systems for cabin air, but adding extra layers of filtration couldn’t hurt. If you have an older vehicle you will probably need to design and install a filtration system to ensure ash does not flood the cabin while you drive. You can also install a vacuum system to suck ash away from your engine air intake like the Washington State Patrol did during Mt. Saint Helens. Naturally you will have to empty out the vacuum occasionally, but it will at least get you down the road and eventually to a place where the ash is thinner.

Unless you are able to make it out of the area before the eruption happens and if you don’t live in an evacuation zone, your best bet is to bug in and wait for the dust to settle. Once the air clears a bit, you can head for greener pastures, but trying to travel through the ash is generally going to put you in more danger than just staying put. If you have backup food and water, stay sealed inside.

If you live right up next to any of these volcanoes, the best prep would be to move. If you don’t have the financial means to do that or you just plain don’t want to, listen for the early warning signs and evacuate as soon as you think your safety is threatened.

Red Beard

Red Beard is a native Northwesterner, a father and a husband.  His goal in life is to keep his family safe.

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6 thoughts on “Keeping Life Clean in Volcanic Ash”

  1. As a young man I witnessed this and man was it something. At the time I lived in Gresham, Oregon. We lived just south of the Columbia river and it was a clear,cool day when Mt. St. Helens blew! What an expericence!

  2. I was 18 when St Helens Blew and we lived in White Swan in the Yakima Valley. We had 6 inches of ash in our front yard, as well as everywhere else in the valley. The emergency broadcast system didn’t work either by TV or by radio! We had NO idea what was happening until several hours later. It was a horrible mess for a very long time. We can still find ash in the bark of some of the older trees when they are cut down in the forest. My fiance came to get me and took me to his family ranch. I watched his mom use the garden hose the next day to write our names in the lawn- lol It was a nasty thing to deal with but we all lived!

  3. I was trapped in the Philippines when Mt. Pinatubo let loose. The US was negotiating renewal leases for Subic and Clark. Negotiations dragged with the Philippines wanting more and more from the US… until it happened and we were no longer interested. Turbine aircraft were grounded and it looked after a while I was one of the many who just might be forced to take that proverbial slow boat to China.

    In Manila, street lights lights were on at noon. Ash fallout at the worst was about foot per day. Everyone wore dust masks. It was miserable. Ash load mixed with rain collapsed huts in the surrounding area and Manila was filled with barely clothed refugees. I just thought I was miserable. Gwen, I know what you mean with your remark, “It was a horrible mess…”

    Volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, mother nature can serve up some miserable conditions. I urge avoidance by relocation whenever you have a secure place outside the affected area.

    Thanks for a trip down memory lane.

  4. Rourke,

    After days and days in the US Embassy at Manila I made the classic mistake of remarking that I was bored. I was quickly volunteered to help Phivocs (the Philippine volcano institute) collect ash samples – from the air via UH-1H turbine helicopters. There is nothing quite like flying over a red hot lava flow in an ash compromised turbine powered aircraft.

    You’re right, it was an awesome experience. In those days San Miguel was 5 cents a bottle and the bar at the Hotel Manila was well stocked with nuts, pretzels, and chips. Many many afternoons were lazed away drinking San Miguel and munching on chips. The Hotel Manila where I stayed most evenings was once used as General MacArthur’s headquarters and the cement wall around the pool was pock marked from Japanese small arms fire. It was like stepping into a Bogart movie. In the evenings an orchestra would play while tuxedoed men danced with their ladies on the parquet floor. The walls were all paneled with mahogany and cigarette smoke still polluted the air. Sometimes in the evenings we could hear HUK artillery in the mountains and then the electricity would go off for hours at a time. I took a melancholy visit to Corregidor and didn’t have to try hard in order to imagine the sounds of Japanese shelling. For someone so sensitized, there was even a lingering smell of fear. One day at the US Cemetery outside Manila, I located the grave of a relative who died during the Death March. Having time on my hands made the experience all the more poignant.

    I made several subsequent Pacific Rim tours, the Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong, China but none were as memorable as that time when the volcano erupted.



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