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In the shadow of Mount Rainier, people go about their lives going to shop, going to school, going to work. One day, though, the routine will be broken by a rumble that sounds like a thousand freight trains. If all works accordingly, sirens will alert the 4,400 residents that they have less than 45 minutes to evacuate or be buried by an avalanche of mud and debris tumbling off the flank of the 4,392-metre volcano.



Scientists know Mount Rainier will eventually awaken as Mount St. Helens did in 1980. It could gradually build up and explode, or part of it may collapse. It could happen in 200 years, or it could happen tonight.
"People get burned by these kind of events because they think it can't happen in their lifetime," - Willie Scott of the U.S. Geological Survey
The agency ranks Mount Rainier as the third most dangerous volcano in the nation, after Kilauea on Hawaii's Big Island and Mount St. Helens. Both are currently active.
Other studies call Rainier the most dangerous volcano in the world not just for its explosive potential, but because of the 3 million people who live in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metropolitan area. At least 100,000 people live on top of Rainier mudflows that have solidified.
Mudflow poses a serious threat for Orting. Two rivers drain off the mountain, hug the town and converge just beyond it, putting Orting squarely in the mountain's strike zone. The town, in fact, was built atop a 500-year-old mudflow that buried the valley 9 metres deep.
Construction crews working on new housing developments for Orting's growing population have dug up massive tree stumps remnants of a forest buried there the last time Mount Rainier rumbled.
Yet, the risks did not worry Dawn So when she moved here two years ago. She was just looking for a good place to raise her children and open a quilting store.
"I wanted to have my kids in a better school district, a smaller town. I like to let them play in the front yard without having to worry about them."
Her family has planned its escape routes, and she's confident they could get to high ground in time. She does not, however, spend much time thinking about Rainier's threat.
"It's such a highly improbable situation. Disasters can happen wherever you're at."
The risk of catastrophe every couple thousand years has not stopped brisk development, either. But as scientists identified Rainier as a threat in the decades after Mount St. Helens' eruption, government officials and citizens have begun preparing.
Most of the mudflows also called lahars from Mount Rainier were triggered by an eruption, Scott said. But the most recent, the Electron mudflow that buried Orting 500 years ago, did not seem to follow that pattern.
"Maybe it was just a gradual weakening. That one sort of keeps us honest." - Willie Scott.
Federal, state and local officials gathered last week at Fort Lewis for a simulated emergency response exercise. Later this month, Orting schools will practice a drill familiar to most students by now evacuating and walking 3 kilometres to higher ground.
For years, Chuck Morrison has lobbied to have a path and bridges built so students can head to a bluff about a kilometre away, rather than travel across town for cover. This year's state budget includes $1.7 million to start planning the project.
A Tacoma resident, Morrison made the pedestrian bridge his crusade after falling in love with Orting's railroad history and scenic beauty. He understands what draws people to a volcano's backyard.
"This place is gorgeous," he said, standing on the edge of the town square, the mountain shrouded by clouds behind him.
Though some locals have welcomed Morrison's activism, others roll their eyes.
"Don't keep talking about that mountain! I'm sick of hearing about it," said 69-year-old James Nunnally, who'd rather see money spent on roads to handle Orting's growing number of commuters.


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-- Edited by Blobrana at 03:43, 2005-05-18

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A volcano spewed ash and lava onto part of the ecologically delicate Galapagos Islands on Friday, threatening to kill vegetation and some animals on the island of Fernandina.
The islands, of the coast of Ecuador, are considered one of the most important natural preserves in the world.
"Evidently a lot of vegetation will be burned and some animals, especially iguanas, will die. But considering that Fernandina is the most pristine island of the archipelago, we don't have to worry much. This is a natural process." - Washington Tapia , Galapagos National Park Director.



No humans live on Fernandina, the westernmost island in the formation. The volcano, also called Fernandina, shot a column of ash and gas 7 kilometres into the air while lava descended its banks.
The lava could reach the Pacific Ocean in five days. Sea lions, penguins and bullfinches also live on Fernandina.
The most active volcano in the Galapagos, the 1495 m high, Fernandina has had between 20 and 22 eruptions since 1813.
Ecuadorean authorities said they would not declare the island, which is formed mostly of lava, a disaster area. The eruption has not interrupted air traffic to and from the Galapagos, which were made famous by Charles Darwin, who studied the islands for 20 years before publishing "The Origin of Species by Natural Selection."
In 1959, at the 100th anniversary of the publication of the book, the Galapagos Islands became Ecuador's first national park and the Charles Darwin Foundation was established to help preserve them.

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