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Volcano Unleashes Biggest Eruption Yet; Streetlights on as Ash Descends

April 1, 1986

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ Augustine Volcano blasted debris 40,000 feet high Monday in its largest eruption since awakening last week from a 10-year slumber, spewing a cloud of ash dense enough that streetlights came on at midday in a town 70 miles away, officials said.

Winds carried ash and debris toward Kodiak and Homer, south and east of the 4,025-foot peak. But weather forecasters said a wind shift in the next few days may again blow ash toward the state’s major population center around Anchorage, 175 miles northeast of Augustine.

State seismologist John Davies classified the 9:55 a.m. eruption as major, saying it was a vent-clearing that observers had been watching for.

″It seems to have released a lot of pressure,″ Davies said. Augustine’s historic eruptive pattern is to blow apart its dome, calm down, then build another dome, scientists said.

The National Weather Service said ash fallout Monday was heaviest in Homer, 70 miles east of Augustine. The ash cloud descended on the coastal town of 4,000 shortly before noon, bringing the heavy smell of sulfur with it.

″There was a cloud that came over and made it dark enough for the street lights to come on on,″ said Homer police dispatcher Deena Benson. ″It’s kind of like a fog, only it smells different, feels different, and is different, I guess.″

The volcano resumed lower-level eruptions after Monday morning’s blast, which was comparable to the volcano’s last major eruption in January 1976, Davies said.

Augustine, located on an uninhabited island in lower Cook Inlet, roared to life early Thursday in a series of pulsating eruptions. It has erupted intermittently since then, shooting ash and gases up to nine miles high.

Emergency officials throughout south-central Alaska have been hanging on the words of weather forecasters since Thursday, since the wind dictates which areas will get covered with a layer of gritty, irritating ash.

Neil Murakami, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said Monday that a low-pressure system moving into south-central Alaska might cause winds to blow ash toward Anchorage in the next two to three days.

Before Monday, the hardest-hit communities were Kenai Peninsula communities of Kenai and Soldotna, about 110 miles northeast of the volcano. They received a one-eighth-inch coating of ash Thursday and Friday after the first eruptions, triggering health alerts and grounding airplanes as people emptied stores of autobomile air filters and breathing masks.

At the Anchorage International Airport, many flights were canceled Friday and Saturday because of the possibility of airborne ash scouring airplanes and damaging engines. Most airlines returned to their schedules Sunday, after Anchorage escaped with only a fine dusting of ash.

The city’s health alert was canceled late Saturday, and levels of particles in the air were back to normal Sunday, officials said.

Five major eruptions have been recorded since Augustine was discovered in 1778 by Capt. James Cook. The eruptions came in 1812, 1883, 1935, 1963 and 1976. The 1883 eruption generated a 30-foot wave surging into Port Graham, flooding houses and destroying boats.

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