Ash from Tuesday's Mount St. Helens eruption filtered down today over parts of eastern Washington, depositing a thin gray film on cities and towns that are still cleaning up from the volcano's violent May 18 blast.
In a series of eruptions Tuesday between 5:13 and 7 p.m., the small lava dome which had been forming in the volcano's crater was blown away. The plume rose almost nine miles into the sky spread out into a mushroom-shaped cloud, and drifted northeast across eastern Washington's sagebrush country and over eastern British Columbia and Alberta.
An almost continous series of earthquakes Tuesday warned scientists of the possibility of an eruption in time to evacuate geologists, 600 loggers and forest fire-fighting crews in the area.
There were no deaths or injuries.
The volcano was quiet today, shrouded in clouds and emitting only a small brown cloud of steam.
The ash from Tuesday's eruption traveled father north and east than the ash from the May 18 eruption, scientists said, because it was so light. The eruption two months ago spread at least 1.3 billion cubic yard of ash and rock over eastern Washington.
Today, the most serious ashfall occurred on the town of Colville, 30 miles south of the Canadian border. Its, 3745 residents received a dusting of about an eighth of an inch.
After the eruption, residents there watched the sun turn bright orange and as the ash cloud advanced it looked like a "big fog bank."
The sun set at the normal hour and the stars and the moon came out, but at about 11 p.m., the moon clouded over and the ash began to fall. "It looked like table salt falling fro m the sky," said Larry Pesicka, a 31-year-old resident who runs the card room at Harold's Tavern on Colville's Main Street. "I come down to work and the town looked like it was deserted. There ain't hardly anybody in Colville. The main street is empty."
Other towns in eastern Washington reported an even finer dusting of ash, hardly noticeable when added to the ash already on the ground. In Spokane and Yakima, where residents take pride in the equanimity with which they responded to the two-inch ash fall of May 18, Tuesday's ash fall was described as "nothing at all."
Meanwhile, scientists strained today to get a glimpse inside the crater, but their view was obstructed by clouds. Only the brown cloud of steam, which rose 9,500 feet, was visible this morning.
Later, geologists flying over the mountain spotted a ridge that had formed since Tuesday in the north end of the volcano's crater. It was covered with a mixture of hot gases and rock debris from Tuesday's eruptions.
Dan Miller, with the U.S. Geological Survey, said the main crater, created by the May 18 eruption, opens to the north and is about 2 1/2 miles long. It is about a half-mile wide at the bottom and nearly a mile across at the widest point. The new ridge is inside the crater, just north of a hole on the crater's floor.
Miller said the volcano has not ended its active period, and future eruptions -- including some larger than Tuesday's -- are possible.
But in Tuesday's eruption, geologists and emergency workers who have been monitoring the volcano, were particularly proud that no lives were lost or injuries suffered, even though their warnings of the eruption came only an hour before the first blast occurred.
Geological Survey spokesman Tim Hait said an observer noticed a hole in the lava dome early Tuesday morning. That, and an increase in seismic activity during the day, caused emergency workers to pull geologists, U.S. Forest Service firefighters and lumber company work crews away from the area.
"We had a warning that some kind of activity was possible," Miller said. "That's about as much as we can hope for in the future."
But he added, the May 18 and May 25 eruptions occured without warning.
Jim Unterwegner, a spokesman for the U.S Forest Service, said firefighters mopping up fires left smoldering after the May 18 eruption are not allowed to travel more that a 15-minute walk from the helicopter.
He said the helicopter remains at the scene with its engine running so the firefighters can be evacuated quickly in case the mountain explodes unexpectedly.
Unterwegner said that precaution is one of the reasons why the Forest Service was able to speedily evacuate 120 firefighters from around the mountain Tuesday.
The May 18 eruption, which packed the violence of a 10-megaton bomb, killed at least 34 persons and left 53 still missing.
Tuesday's blasts were characterized by geologists as similar to the eruptions on May 25 and June 12, which sprayed ash over parts of southwest Washington and Portland, Ore., but added little to the devastation the May 18 eruption had already caused. The plume from the blasts Tuesday rose straight above the mountain, and Hait said any damage resulting from the eruption would be only where the ash fell.
Geologists observed several hot pyroclastic flows of hot gas and bouldersized chunks of pumice hurtling down the north flank of the mountain toward the devastated Spirit Lake. But no mud flows were observed, and hours after the eruption, the flash flood watches on the Toutle and Cowlitz rivers were called off.
Before the first eruption at 5:13 p.m., the mountain was jolted by more than 40 earthquakes, the last 20 occurring less than an hour before the eruption. The first eruption lasted two minutes. A second blast, at 6:27 p.m., lasted 10 minutes. The third eruption, at 7 p.m., continued until after midnight when the plume dropped and fizzled into the brown steam cloud.
In Yakima, 80 miles northeast of the volcano, Mayor Betty Edmondson said today she was more worried about bad press ruining her city's "clean and green" campaign than she was about the latest ash fall.
Edmondson said the city has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in tourist business and convention cancellations since the volcano began erupting Yakima has spent between $2 million and $4 million cleaning up.
In tiny Ritzville, just east of Sponkane, where the ash from the May 18 eruption pilled up four inches deep and the Washington State National Guard spent a week digging residents out, Adams County Sheriff Ron Snowden spent Tuesday night in his office waiting for the new ash cloud to arrive.
Since the May 18 eruption, Ritzville has shoveled 1.5 million cubic yards of ash into a gravel pit just outside its city limits. That was after it loaded another landfill near its air strip with 40,000 cubic yards of ash.
But this time, Snowden said, he gratefully watched the ash cloud drift right on by.