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Communities Near Mt. Shasta Feel Shock Waves Over Volcano Notice

August 03, 1988|MARK A. STEIN | Times Staff Writer

DUNSMUIR, Calif. — When Shirley Manfredi-Below admires the way Mt. Shasta towers over this little railroad town, she sees a snow-patched peak that is at once familiar and breathtaking, a source of pride and prosperity to the area.

That is all fine by the U.S. Geological Survey, but federal scientists also want Manfredi and her neighbors in hamlets around the mountain 250 miles north of Sacramento to see Mt. Shasta as something more--an active volcano.

To that end, the survey has published a 21-page pamphlet on volcano awareness--the first in a series of brochures for several major peaks in the volcanically active Cascade range--and intends to make it available to residents of the small towns ringing Mt. Shasta.

But even though it has sent 100 advance copies of the booklets to disaster-preparedness agencies in Siskiyou County, the survey has balked at authorizing full public distribution, apparently in part because of the controversy caused by a volcano warning near Mammoth Lakes in 1982.

Survey officials at the western regional office in Menlo Park declined to discuss the brochure, except to acknowledge its existence and imminent release pending approval from Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel in Washington.

Several Siskiyou County residents who have seen the advance copies said the government geologists are careful to acknowledge that it has been many years--two centuries, in fact--since 14,162-foot Mt. Shasta last erupted, and they emphasize that they have no sign that the peak is stirring from its slumber.

But the pamphlet does warn that some volcanic activity is as inevitable as earthquakes on the West Coast--indeed, the two phenomena share some roots--and advises people what to expect from an eruption of Mt. Shasta and how to prepare for it.

Such information is hardly news to the few thousand people who have settled in Dunsmuir, Weed, McCloud and other little communities snuggling up along the base of the towering peak. They live with the mountain as casually as Southern Californians cope with earthquakes.

For most people, the chief concern about the volcano warning is the effect that it might have on property values, or the new ski resort being built up on the mountain.

"When we first saw it, we were a little afraid it might keep the tourists away," said Sheriff Charles Byrd from his office in Yreka, the county seat. "It has a real mellow tone," he allowed, "but we did not want anything to hurt development."

County Supervisor Phil Mattos of Mt. Shasta expressed similar concerns when the Geological Survey first showed him the booklet, but he and other local leaders were assuaged when the federal agency added an insert flatly stating: "There is no sign of present activity and there is currently no indication when it might be active again."

The eagerness to accommodate local concerns without ignoring the reality of volcanic activity grows out of several events, beginning with the violent 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington state. That explosive event claimed 36 lives, even though it had been preceded by months of seismic rumblings that warned of an impending eruption.

When an unusual level of seismic activity--as well as increased flows and temperatures in local hot springs--were detected in 1982 around California's Mammoth Lakes, the Geological Survey cautiously issued a "volcanic notice" in the area. Elected officials were outraged, claiming that the warning would hamper development plans. Senior federal officials swiftly withdrew the warning.

Still smarting from those two events, the Geological Survey embarked on the current program of trying to educate people to the danger of volcanoes without causing undue concern. Mt. Shasta was chosen as the first in the educational series because it was the first of six dormant Cascade range volcanoes to have been reevaluated by geologists after the Mt. St. Helens eruption.

Other Mountains on List

Survey spokeswoman Pat Jorgenson said the brochure series is scheduled to cover Mt. Hood in Oregon, then Mt. Lassen in California. Booklets also are scheduled for Mt. Ranier and Mt. Baker in Washington and the Three Sisters in Oregon.

All the hand-wringing about causing a panic was unnecessary, as far as many local residents are concerned.

"It is something we joke about, actually," said Debbie Salvestrin, deputy city clerk in the small town of Weed, population 3,000. "We talk about what we will do if it happens. But if it happens, we all know there wouldn't be enough time to do much of anything."

Others, such as Manfredi, are less fatalistic.

"We don't really worry about it," she said while tending to customers of the family grocery, Manfredi's Market. "If it's going to go, I am sure there would be some warning--earthquakes or something, like there was at Mt. St. Helens."

Indeed, people who have read the brochure say it talks about such volcanic precursors as earthquakes. It also maps out which areas would be affected by eruptions at different points around the mountain, and notes that geological evidence indicates that the volcano last erupted in 1786.

Dam Not Covered

The brochure does not discuss the possible effect an eruption might have on Shasta Dam. The Sacramento and McCloud rivers connect Mt. Shasta to that big federal irrigation project about 50 miles away. Scientists last year estimated that Mt. Shasta was blanketed with 4.7 billion cubic feet of snow and ice.

Officials at the federal Bureau of Reclamation headquarters in Sacramento said this week that they were not aware of volcano contingency plans for the dam. Operators of the dam were unavailable for comment.

"That's all very speculative anyway," said Sheriff Byrd. "The real hazard facing California, as far as I am concerned, is a major earthquake in the Los Angeles Basin."

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