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By Bill Varner
That was quite an experience. I’m 89, and I’ve lived in Toutle my whole life. My great-grandparents lived here. I grew up on this place, a small, 80-acre farm. When I was 10, I moved across the field over here with a horse and a sled. I went to Toutle Lake School, first grade through high school.
We did have warnings. I was running a forestry crew for Weyerhaeuser Company. The morning it blew, why, I was using forestry high-school kids to plant trees. I had a couple crew buses, about 20 young people, and we were just ready to head up, right in the face of it, and a Weyerhaeuser guy, Greg Jones from a slash-burning crew, flagged me down as we were pulling out. He said, “On this last burn, wait a minute, let me make a call and see which way the wind’s blowing.” He came back and said, “Let’s cancel this day because the wind’s blowing and the smoke will go toward Chehalis.”
I came home, and a half hour later I looked up, and I could see the mountain blowing. A big cloud, looked like it was going to go over our house. It got to a certain height, and prevailing winds took it over to Yakima country. We got some ash here, only an inch or so on the roofs and on the ground.
I stayed here, but my niece got killed on the Green River. She was camped up there. There was a big tree, they were tent camping, and the tree went right over the camp. Her boyfriend happened to be outside, and that big tree went over the tent and killed her. He couldn’t do anything about it and hiked out. Then the Coast Guard took him back in to show him where this all happened in a helicopter and retrieved the body.
It was scary. I definitely was super-concerned about it because that ash cloud looked like it was going to come over our house. I live 20 miles from the mountain as the crow flies. Ash ruined our shake roof, and we had to replace that. That was a horrible, horrible situation.
I also had a contract about six-seven miles north of the mountain, and I was working down in there for the Forest Service. I took a man or two with me, and we went down there to go to work that morning. We came back out of there. We had to buck a bunch of logs that were over the creek. The logs had a foot of snow on them. We had to walk the logs to buck ’em. I took my people out of there and got back home. That’s when the mountain blew.
I didn’t quite realize, like most people, the magnitude of it. We had observed it puffing for several weeks, smaller eruptions, but when it really did erupt, boy, it was definitely scary. Then the rivers flooded, and I could hear the rivers coming down. Coming down the river approximately two miles away, I got in a pickup and got to where I could see the trestle, about 30 feet high, and it took that out. Prior to that, the mudflow, the water coming down, was just about the top of that. We came back home.
I had livestock here, cows and horses, and when the ashes started, they started running. It scared the death out of them. That was pretty wild. We never lost any animals, but you could definitely feel the heat from it, which was 20 miles-plus away. That’s a lot of heat to travel that far. You could feel the hair on your arms. If you had a short-sleeve shirt, it would stand straight up.
It took a lot of places out. Any of them close to the river were demolished. I’ve said 100 times since then, the good Lord had to be looking after us.
I told my wife and four girls that we had a hand-dug well down below, with a culvert on it. “If it does erupt and you get really concerned, take the kids down there and climb down in that well. You may be safe.” I had a rope down there.
We evacuated in case it blew again and went over to a place on the side of the hill where a whole lot of the neighbors went. The military flew in and set up big camps for everybody and food. We stayed there about three days. I had livestock that needed tending, so I came back, found a spot to cross the mud flow and walk on up here, about three and a half miles away. Then I’d go back.