By April 4, 2014 Read More →

How to Prepare for a Volcanic Eruption

How to prepare for a volcano


Preparing for a volcanic eruption basically boils down to prepping for evacuation at a movement’s notice  if you live in a blast, lava flow or lahar zone or prepping for volcanic ash if you live in an ash fall zone. There is also the possibility of volcano related earthquakes, but earthquakes are covered in another article (to read it click here). Prepping for an evacuation is pretty straight forward so this article will focus on volcanic ash fall, the inevitable outcome of almost any major volcanic eruption.

If you are unsure if live an ash fall zone or a more dangerous zone, visit USGS and explore their map of active volcanoes to research what is in your area. Please note: This article is not about Yellowstone or any other a super volcano, instead it is geared toward the FAR MORE LIKELY event of a stratovolcano going off, like Mt. Rainier, which would produce earthquakes, lahars and lots of ash. However, the information here can be applied to fit your situation as needed.

ash pic

Volcanic ash under a microscope.
Image courtesy of USGS.

Everyone in an ash fall zone will be exposed to the effects of volcanic ash. Volcanic ash is tiny, sharp, corrosive and can infiltrate all but the most tightly sealed buildings and machinery and is often small enough (less than 10 microns) to be inhaled deeply into the lungs where it can cause a lot of damage. Ash fall over extensive areas can prevent travel for days because of poor visibility, slippery roads, and damage to vehicles.

Power outages may occur before, during, and after an ash fall either due to equipment failure or because power facilities temporarily shut down to prevent damage. Same with public water supplies, they may remain on and intact, a power loss could cause an eventual loss of water service, or water facilities could be temporarily shut down to keep the ash from damaging the filters.

Most volcano preparedness is a matter of knowledge; here is how to go about preparing your home, your animals and your vehicle for a possible volcanic eruption. If you would like a printable version of just the check list alone click here ->  Volcanic Ash Fall Preparedness Checklist


Essential items to stock, hopefully now, before an ash fall is even threatened.

A sustained ash fall may keep people housebound for hours or even days. Keep these items in your home in case of an ash fall:

  • Dust masks (CE N95, or CE N100) and eye protection for each person. The 3M 8233 mask is one of the ‘best and longest lasting’ masks approved for use in volcanic ash, with a time limit of use at 38 hours (source).
  • Enough drinking water for at least 1 week, three gallons of water, per person, per day (these recommendations are more robust than what you will find at USGS or FEMA because APN does not feel those recommendations are adequate and we hope you are working on a much larger supply of water regardless).

    Info Chart Courtesy of USGS
    Click to Enlarge

  • A WaterBOB is a good way store extra water in your bathtub in a pinch and keep it clean without the risk of the tub draining. It collapses down to nothing so it can be kept in even the smallest of apartments.
  • Inexpensive pH test strips for water testing.
  • A working carbon monoxide detector (go ahead and install it now, don’t be that guy who has one and doesn’t install it in time).
  • Enough non-perishable food for each person for at least one week (hopefully you are working on a year’s supply).
  • Plastic wrap (to keep ash out of electronics).
  • Battery-operated radio and extra batteries (click here to learn about battery options for emergency preparedness).
  • Lanterns or flashlights and extra batteries and/or lantern fuel.
  • Extra wood for a fireplace, stove, or another source of emergency heat.
  • Extra blankets and warm clothing.
  • Old fashioned games, cards or puzzles to keep kids occupied without electricity.
  • First aid kit (this should include at least a week’s worth of any medication you are currently taking, preferably more. Pharmacies may be closed and it won’t be safe to leave your home in the middle of an ash fall NOR immediately after an ash fall).
  • Cleaning supplies (broom, vacuum cleaner & bags/filters, shovels, garbage bags etc.).
  • Cash money (ATM machines may not be working).

Animals and Livestock – Items to Stock

  • Enough pet food for at least one week (but I would hope you are working on a year’s supply – click here to learn how).
  • Enough water for your pet for at least one week, an average sized dog will drink between 1.5 to 2 liters of water a day. (Again, we hope you are working on a larger supply).
  • Puppy pads (even if you have adult dogs) in a pinch newspapers will do.
  • Pet first aid kit (should include extras of any meds )
  • Poop bags, Ziploc bags and extra garbage bags.
  • A litter box and extra litter.
  • Extra ‘outdoor’ shovels and brooms stored in an area near or in your outdoor structures for your livestock (sheds, coops, barns).
  • Enough dry feed to last livestock at least one week
  • Tarps of sufficient size to cover stock tanks and small ponds.
  • Inflatable pool cover pillows.
  • Inexpensive pH test strips.


Ash clouds over ephrata

Mt. St Helens ash clouds approaching the town of Ephrata WA. Photo courtesy of Central Washington Historical Society.


Ash fall is imminent. Actions to be taken BEFORE ash begins to fall.

  • Close doors and windows.
  • Place damp towels at door thresholds and other draft sources. Tape drafty windows and seal all but one entrance/exit.
  • Disconnect drainpipes/downspouts from gutters to stop drains clogging, but allowing ash and water to empty from gutters onto the ground.
  • If you use a rainwater collection system for your water supply, disconnect the tank and seal it shut prior to ash falling.
  • If you have chronic bronchitis, emphysema or asthma, stay inside and use an approved mask (see above) if air quality declines.
  • If you have children, know your school’s emergency plan so there is no confusion on where they are.
  • If you have a ‘transition room’ like an enclosed porch, mud room, or an attached garage that you could use as a transition room – seal this room up from the rest of the house as well, but leave it to where you can still use it to enter and exit your home. This way if you have to go out in the ash you can use this room to get undressed and to dust yourself off in – then enter the rest of the house without bringing all the ash in with you.
  • Charge up all of your electronic devices – before ash begins to fall, wrap all sensitive electronic in plastic wrap or garbage bags do not uncover until the environment is totally ash-free. This should include computers, tablets, flat screen TVs, smart phones, and any sensitive stereo or radio equipment you care about.
  • Get out all masks, light sources and an emergency radio and put them in one central location.
  • While there is no guarantee that your water supply will be compromised or even shut off now is a good time to fill up your tub or WaterBOB with extra water, just in case. If you are continuing to use a public water supply, testing the pH periodically wouldn’t hurt.

    Most precipitation has a pH level slightly below 7 (neutral); contact with carbon dioxide in the air makes it slightly acidic. “Acid Rain” is the term for precipitation with a pH of less than 5.6. Acidic water leads to corrosion of brass fixtures, copper plumbing, steel tanks, heating elements in hot-water heaters, and concrete.  Fresh volcanic ash typically lowers the pH of water. For example, an ash fall of 3-6 mm in Anchorage, Alaska, during the 1953 eruption of Mount Spurr caused the pH of the public water supply to fall to 4.5; within a few hours, the pH returned to 7.9 (source – USGS).

Ash fall is imminent, what do for animals and livestock.

  • Make sure pets (caged birds, cats, dogs) are inside the home or in some other enclosed shelter (the home is best). A regular doghouse or other open-ended outdoor shelter will not provide adequate protection.
  • If an outdoor shelter for livestock is available they should be sheltered in these structures. Meaning chickens closed up in their coop, horses in a barn, pigs in a shed – all should be provided with ample food and water.
  • If more than a half an inch of ash is forecasted to fall, and you do not have extra feed or shelter for your livestock, evacuation should be considered. Livestock, without supplemental feed, will try to eat the ash-laden grass and may poison themselves or suffer other negative health effects. This was well documented in 2010 in Iceland.
  • Cover outdoor water supplies with tarps if possible to keep the ash out. Inflatable pool cover pillows (these normally keep snow off of pools), can be used in conjunction with tarps to keep ash out of small ponds or large stock tanks (inflate the pillows, float them on the water, cover the pond or stock tank and the pillows with tarps – this keeps the tarp and the ash above the water, without having to hang it up).
  • Cover outdoor haystacks with tarps to protect dry feed supplies.


helens ash

Mt. St Helens Ash. Photo credit, USGS.

Ash is now falling. What to do.

  • Remain calm.
  • Stay indoors.
  • If outside, seek shelter (like in a car or building).
  • If warning is given before ash fall starts, go home from work.
  • If at work when ash fall starts, stay indoors until the ash has settled.
  • If air quality indoors declines, use a mask, handkerchief or wet cloth over your nose and mouth.
  • Do not tie up phone lines with non-emergency calls.
  • Conserve phone battery power by sending text messages instead of voice calls – there are times when voice calls will not go through but text messages will.
  • Listen to your local radio stations for information on the eruption and cleanup plans.
  • Do not wear contact lenses as these will result in corneal abrasion.
  • If there is ash in your water you can filter it using your katadyn, berkley or other emergency water filter. Use a coffee filter as a “pre-filter” if possible to protect your main filter from at least some of the harsh ash, you can also let the ash settle and then use the clear water.
  • If there is a lot of ash in the water supply, do not use your dishwasher or washing machine. Water contaminated by ash will usually make drinking water unpalatable before it presents a health risk, but a quick pH test with a strip wouldn’t hurt and would let you know if the water is starting to get acidic (click here to learn about the proper pH of water).
  • Periodically check your roof for ash accumulation. Since most roofs cannot support more than four inches (10 cm) of wet ash, keep roofs free of thick accumulation. If rain is forecasted and you have received a heavy ash fall it may be necessary to remove some of the ash before it is done falling. This should be done with approved masks, goggles and gloves. Using brooms and shovels clear the roof with great caution. Volcanic ash makes roofs very slick, almost like ice, so use all safety measures.
  • Limit your time outdoors and return indoors as quickly as possible via a “transition room” where you can shed your ash covered clothes and dust yourself off, to limit the introduction of ash into the home.
  • You may eat vegetables from the garden that have ash on them, but wash them first.

Ash is falling, what to do for Livestock and Animals

  • Avoid going outside at all with your indoor pets while ash is falling make use of litter boxes and puppy pads in an attached garage or other section of the dwelling until the ash subsides. Add poo and other waste to ziplock bags and to garbage bags to control smell. If you have to go outside to check the roof leave animal waste outside at that time, then return quickly indoors.
  • Animals will get restless indoors, patience will be required, toys or chewy treats may help this restlessness.
  • Feed and water outdoor animals only when required using an approved mask and protective goggles. Check on the depth of the ash on the roof of their structures at this time. If rain is in the forecast – ash removal even before it is done falling may be necessary if the depth is exceeding 4 inches or 10 cm.
  • If you have been unable to cover the livestock water supply – occasionally testing the pH of the water with some inexpensive pH test strips might be a good precaution to take.


ash buster filters moses lake

Ash Busters – Something the Moses Lake, WA Police Department rigged up to deal with the ash, I am not sure exactly how it worked – but it did.
Photo courtesy – Spokesman Review.


  • Since there is always the possibility that you could be trapped in your vehicle during an ash fall, store emergency supplies in your vehicle aw well, a “get home bag” is ideal for this emergency supply storage (click here to learn how to pack a Get Home Bag).
  • If driving is no longer an option do not attempt to walk home in the middle of the ash fall instead use an approved mask or a wet bandana to cover your nose and mouth and wait inside your vehicle for the ash fall to stop.
  • If possible, avoid driving anywhere as ash is harmful to vehicles, and the roads may be slippery. Driving also suspends ash into the air which causes low visibility and may be harmful to others.
  • If driving is crucial, drive slowly, use headlights and ample windshield wiper fluid.
  • Shut off air in-takes or seal them off manually.
  • Using wipers on dry ash may scratch the windshield.
  • In heavier ash fall driving should only be undertaken in an emergency.
  • If out of wiper fluid use water bottles and a cloth to clean the windshield as required, this may be every few hundred yards.
  • Change oil and oil filters frequently (every 50-100 miles in heavy dust; every 500-1000 miles in light dust).
  • Do not drive without an air filter. If you can not change it, clean it by blowing air from the inside out using a service station air compressor or your own if you have one. Storing an extra air filter in your car is never a bad idea. Do not change it until you notice a loss of power to the engine as a dirty filter is actually more effective at stopping volcanic ash than a clean one.


Taking a break Ritzville spokesman

Ritzville WA – Mt. St Helens ash clean up. Photo courtesy Spokesman Review.


Vehicle – After the Ash Fall

  • Clean ash from inside your engine, trunk/boot and spare tire storage area as well as the seating area.
  • Brushing ash off the car can cause scratching.
  • Brake assemblies should be cleaned with compressed air. If you don’t know how to do it yourself, have a service garage clean wheel brake assemblies every 50-100 miles for very severe road conditions, or every 200-500 miles for heavy dust conditions.
  • Also clean alternators with compressed air after heavy accumulation, every 500 to 1000 miles, or after severe dust exposure.
  • Clean the vehicle, including the engine, radiator, and other essential parts daily, if necessary, using water to flush the ash.
  • Wash the engine compartment with a garden hose or steam cleaner. Be sure to seal off air intakes and electrical components before cleaning.


more ash clean up spokesman spokane

Mt. St Helens ash clean up. Spokane, Wa. Photo courtesy of the Spokesman Review.

Recovery – Clean Up

Volcanic ash is a great nuisance and gets everywhere in the house and office, including inside televisions, computers, cameras and other valuable equipment, where it can cause irreparable damage. Ash is different from ordinary house dust. Its sharp, crystalline structure causes it to scratch and abrade surfaces when it is removed by wiping or brushing. In wet weather the ash deposits are dampened down and the air can be clear, but in drier weather ash can easily be stirred up and remobilized by wind and traffic. As a result suspended dust levels become much higher and can be at levels potentially harmful to health. Rainfall and wind are effective in removing the ash and grass and other plants will eventually bind it to the soil, but with large ash falls this process is too slow and the ash must be cleaned up and taken away from populated areas.

plowing ash eastern wa

Plowing Mt St Helens ash, Eastern WA. Photo courtesy of USGS

Click here to learn more about how to clean up and remove volcanic ash once it has stopped falling. 

When ash fall destroy pastures, livestock need to be supplied with all of their feed in order to survive in the short-term. The supply of dry feed must be maintained until the livestock are either evacuated or slaughtered, or pasture is re-established.

Even when very light ash falls do not destroy existing pastures, animals may need to be provided with uncontaminated feed. For example, if the ash contains a high level of fluorine adsorbed onto the tiny particles and livestock consume both ash and fluorine, there is a risk of fluorosis (fluoride poisoning).

mt st helens ash columbia basin usda

Section of farmland from central Washington State showing the accumulation of Mt. St Helens Ash. Photo credit – USDA

Click here to see specific actions that gardeners, homesteaders, farmers and livestock owners can take to keep their animals safe and rehabilitate their land depending on how much ash has fallen.


Too many prepping and survival websites are making money off of scaring people with doom gloom and write-ups about fairly inert volcanic and seismic events. They make money and generate web traffic off of people’s fear. The more alarming the piece is, the more people click on them. If you see an alarming article in relation to the Yellowstone Super Volcano or any other volcanic or seismic event, double check it with a scientific source like USGS or one of the websites listed below, and remember earthquakes and volcano rumblings are very common events planet wide, and comparatively only rarely are they cause for actual concern. It’s like what Winston Churchill said:

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”


Sources for GOOD current factual information on volcanic and seismic activity – without spin. Bookmark these sites for easy future reference.

Also know that almost each major active volcano has it’s own “observatory” simply google the one that you would like to keep an eye on, and bookmark their website. Often up-to-the-minute information can be found on those sites. Nothing like getting the facts directly from the source.

Sources of good information on volcanic emergency preparedness (and also the sources for this article).


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About the Author:

Stephanie is a writer for the American Preppers Network, a small local paper and for her blog, The Home Front and was featured in Marie Claire UK in the October 2012 issue that featured women preppers. She is also the credited writer of "Emergency Bag Essentials (Swatchbook): Everything You Need to Bug Out" released in August 2014 and available on "I write articles based on my own experience with emergency preparedness, self-sufficiency, homesteading, food preservation and life around the farmstead. I grew up in a very rural area where I learned to garden, the art of canning, to hunt and fish, and to raise my own animals for food. I also spent 6 years volunteering for the local county Search and Rescue group where I learned a variety of survival skills and a little bit about law enforcement protocol. " "As a general rule of principle I do not write articles about information that I have only read - if I am writing about something it's because I have done it myself and gone to great lengths to provide you with the facts meshed with personal experience. My alter egos are as an full time mom, amateur photographer, and backpacker." Stephanie's past APN articles are featured below on several pages. To connect with her --> click on one of the many little square social media buttons below!

8 Comments on "How to Prepare for a Volcanic Eruption"

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  1. Glenn Lanham says:

    can the volcanic ash be used for other things

    • Pumice, volcanic ash, and perlite are mined in the west. Pumice and volcanic ash are used as abrasives, mostly in hand soaps and household cleaners. The finest grades are used to finish silverware, polish metal parts before electroplating, and for woodworking. In ancient Rome lime and volcanic ash were mixed to make cement. Pumice and volcanic ash continue to be used as lightweight aggregate in concrete, especially precast concrete blocks. Crushed and ground pumice are also used for loose-fill insulation, filter aids, poultry litter, soil conditioner, sweeping compound, and as an insecticide carrier – much like DE.

  2. Lindsay B says:

    What area surrounding a volcano would be affected? How far away would masks, etc be needed?

  3. Verne B says:

    Not enough emphasis is placed on the real life threatening aspects of a volcanic eruption. I know – I experienced Mt. St Helen’s ash. Ash is more a nusance (unless you have breathing issues). The real dangers – particularly for Cascade Volcanos – are the lahars/mudflows generated when the glacial ice melts suddenly. These don’t necessarly wait for an active eruption event either. People need to know IF they are in a danger zone and evacuation routes to safety!!!! Second real danger is the blast zone around the volcano and the extent that pyroclastic flows may extend away from the base of the mountain.

    • What a coincidence Verne – I too experienced Mt. St Helen’s Ash, tremors, and ash clean up.

      While a bigger part of the article could’ve been devoted to lahars, pyroclastic flows, and blast zones – there is really only one answer to those disasters and that is: immediate evacuation when it is recommended by those observing the volcano, which I covered in the first 3 paragraphs including links allowing readers to do their own research.

      The problem with volcanos is that they are all different in nature. Some are more prone to lahars and mudflows than others – some are more prone to pyroclastic flows. There is no blanket advice that will cover all volcanos; some volcanos have very large blast zones and pyroclastic flow zones some do not. It depends on the volcano.

      As you can see from the comments already, the little I did cover of these topics has already lead to people wanting specific individualized information that I cannot provide. It is the responsibility of THOSE living near a volcano to do their OWN research on where the blast zone is – where the pyroclastic flow zones are – where the lahar dangers are – and where the evacuation zones are. I cannot do that for you. And in all fairness, construction of residential areas are severely restricted if not completely forbidden in the first two areas.

      And one small point I disagree with you on – ash fall, is in fact, the most common cause of death in relation to volcanic eruptions and kills the most people – this is well documented. If not directly – by killing those with breathing conditions, then indirectly by causing roof collapses, power outages, traffic accidents, household accidents, etc…

  4. Verne B says:

    I would say that ‘most common cause of death’ is not ash fall in the manner depicted.

    ” A recent study made on the victims of volcanic eruptions since 1783 AD showed that up to 64 per cent of volcanic–related fatalities are caused by indirect hazards such as mudflows or lahars, volcanic tsunamis, post–eruption famine and epidemic disease. In comparison, only 27 per cent of death is caused by pyroclastic flows, which are a direct hazard of a volcano (Marti and Ernst, 2005)”

    • Verne – the linked study didn’t even include volcanic ash fall in it’s scope. In other words, it wasn’t researched as part of the study, which it would’ve needed to have been in order to discount it.

      Here are some links for your reading.

      “The most common cause of death from a volcano is suffocation.” -CDC

      This is an important tidbit of information because if pyroclastic flows or earthquakes were the COD – it would be called incineration or blunt force trauma. People suffocate when ash enters the lungs and turns into cement. That COD may, however, include deaths from lahars which also include suffocation (not all but some), the CDC doesn’t specify.

      While I love a good debate – the ‘link trading game’ that online forum aficionados like to engage in to see who is smarter than who, is immature and gets old. Therefore we may have to agree to disagree. I have presented the facts as I have experienced them, researched them, and prep for them.

      You can of course feel free to explore other articles on Volcano Preparedness if this one concerning volcanic ash, does not suit your fancy.