Story #22: An eerie and quiet summer

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Tom Maffeo’s Blue Zone permit. (Courtesy Tom Maffeo)
By Tom Maffeo

I retired from the Forest Service in 2014 after 37 years of service with the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

In spring 198, I began my fourth year of temporary summer employment as an equipment operator for a road-maintenance crew at the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. After Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, the entire forest was closed for public safety, so I thought I was out of a job and there would be no work for that 1980 summer work season. As it turned out, a Forest Service recovery plan was put in place for the Gifford Pinchot forest road system, and I had a job!

I was employed first as a road guard for public closure on the south side of the national forest for two weeks before the road-maintenance crew based in Willard, Washington, that I was assigned to was organized to work six days a week for the remainder of the summer on ash removal from major forest road systems to regain administrative and public access to the Gifford Pinchot forest in and around Mount St. Helens. We also re-opened campgrounds and other administrative sites as needed.

My area of work was on the north side of Mount St. Helens working in the Randle and Packwood Ranger Districts (now call Cowlitz Valley Ranger District) north east of Mount St. Helens and in the direction of the blast zone. They had received medium to heavy ash fall across a wide area of the national forest.

Since the forest was closed to the public (except for law enforcement and some other forest service employees) for much of that summer, our crew had the roads to ourselves to perform our work.

I operated backhoe, front-end loader and dump truck, removing ash and debris from forest roads and campgrounds with a crew of 10 other operators and workers.

The entry/access to Mount St. Helens was limited for employees as well by color designation: Red Zone for the blast zone, Blue Zone for areas just outside the blast zone and White Zone for areas further from the volcano. I had a Blue Zone ID badge for our work areas.

It was an eerie and very quiet summer in 1980 working around the mountain, a grey world of ash-covered landscapes, trees and bushes that were coated and hanging heavy with ash. Even the elk and deer were covered in ash as they moved through the brush and timber.

Before we cleaned roads of ash and if it had rained, it was like driving on snow, very slippery. You could slide off a road easily. Of course, if it was dry, it raised a lot of dust when driving, and if the wind was blowing, visibility was poor.

As the spring and summer rains continued and washed the ash off the forest landscape, the natural color of the forest returned to a more green and pleasant place to work.

The road system eventually opened to the public in phases, as roads and campgrounds were cleared of ash or debris. Logging traffic and the public returned to the forest road system. The hazard zones where dropped or their boundaries reconfigured.

We discovered a small, abandoned camp for tree planters that was buried under several inches of ash fall and had collapsed their tents, much like a heavy snowfall would. They had left behind coolers with food, sleeping bags and clothing. We were informed that they had gotten out safely and lost only some camping gear and food. All indications were they had left in a hurry.

Safety protocols where introduced for employees working in the ash and in a volcano hazard area (Red Zone or Blue Zone). We were issued some of the first portable radio pack sets for communication with a local dispatch center and facemasks for ash-exposure prevention. Location calling, in and out, was mandatory.

We experienced smaller ash eruptions and earthquakes from the mountain while working in the national forest over the next few months and years before the mountain calmed down over time.

Many years after the eruption, as the public gained access and roads were built or rebuilt closer to the mountain (Forest Roads 99, 25 and 26), I worked with the Forest Service road-maintenance department, keeping the roads open during summer months for the thousands of visitors each year.

I continued my career with the Forest Service and watched over the next 34 years as the forest and surrounding areas adapted and recovered from the 1980 eruption.

Looking back, I realize that I had a very up-close experience seeing a volcano erupt and the effects it had on the landscape and people working around Mount St. Helens over a long period of time.

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