Water surge from Rainier glacier rushes down Washington river

ASHFORD, Wash. – Park rangers and geologists hoped Wednesday to pinpoint the source of a gush of water from a Mount Rainier glacier that sent rocks and trees rushing into the Nisqually River.

No injuries or serious damage was reported from the “glacial outburst” Tuesday night, but it sent emergency officials scrambling to gauge the severity of the event at the 14,410-foot mountain 40 miles southeast of Tacoma.

Mount Rainier is an active volcano, and its glaciers feed rivers that run through some of the most populous regions of the state.

“Reports are still coming in, but we’re lucky at this point,” said Jody Woodcock, spokeswoman for Pierce County Emergency Management. “This isn’t the big one we’ve been practicing for.”

The surge of water, apparently from glacial melting, sent water and debris rushing into the Nisqually and its tributaries, and left some mud and rock on a park road, said Maria Gillett, spokeswoman for Mount Rainier National Park. Despite initial concerns, it had little effect downstream, where the Nisqually showed no indication that it would overflow its banks.

Nevertheless, the rising water scared campers at several locations within the park, which receives more than 1.2 million visitors a year. The road to Paradise, where the park’s main visitor center and hotel are located, was closed briefly as a precaution, but all facilities were open Wednesday morning, Gillett said.

Some campers left, but no evacuations were ordered, she said.

“There’s a fair amount of mud and rock on the road,” she said. But, “We are not considering this an emergency.”

Park officials planned Wednesday to send a helicopter to the glaciers high on the mountain’s southern flank to look for the source of the melting, she said.

People in nearby communities were asked to stay away from the river, just in case. Tuesday night, Gillett and several of her neighbors in Ashford, site of the park’s headquarters just outside the park’s southwest entrance, took survival supplies and left their homes.

“I grabbed my pack, grabbed a cell phone and a park radio, and went and grabbed an elderly neighbor who I wasn’t sure would know what was going on,” Gillett said. “We drove up what’s basically a logging road and ran into several of my neighbors up there.”

The rushing water apparently came from the Van Trump or Kautz glaciers on the volcano’s south side, officials said.

Officials have been particularly sensitive to potential eruptions of Mount Rainier following a recent computer simulation that showed the region isn’t prepared for one. The simulation, done in May with the help of the federal government, showed that as many as 5,000 people could be killed in an eruption.

An electronic sensor on the mountain, designed to warn of impending eruptions or mud flows, was tripped Tuesday night, apparently by the rushing water and debris. It sounded an alarm at the Pierce County dispatch center, said Sheriff Paul Pastor.

Glacial outbursts are among the most common types of events a volcano like Mount Rainier can produce, said Bill Steele, of the University of Washington seismology center in Seattle.

“It’s a hot summer, a dry year,” Steele said. “The water builds up, gets trapped under the glacier and then can burst forth suddenly, causing a flood down the channel which can be quite dangerous if you’re near the river.”

Pastor noted the water surge occurred in “a very isolated part of the county – a wilderness area.”

Pierce County activated its emergency operations center and called out its search and rescue personnel and swift water rescue teams, sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said.

Fifty-seven people died when Mount St. Helens, south of Rainier in Washington’s Cascade Range, erupted on May 18, 1980.

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