Mt. St. Helens enters new phase and neighbors feel guarded relief

Along Washington's Toutle River, for Rae and Adriana Johnson -- and for the mountain they thought they knew -- the rebuilding has begun. "Believe me, we're among the fortunate ones," says Rae, a retired logging engineer.

When Mt. St. Helens erupted, sending a wall of water, mud, and logs down the Toutle River, the rising, relentless flow stopped just short of the Johnsons' garage.

Across the road, daughter Marcia's home was slowly lifted 15 feet off its foundation and pushed against a Douglas fir tree 10 yards away. They think it can be hauled onto higher ground and salvaged.

Like the many people whose lives it changed, Mt. St. Helens itself apparently is returning to a pre-eruptive state as well.

While noting that "nature can do anything," scientists now say that the mountain has entered the first stage in its return to dormancy. This is the formation of a lava dome within the new mile-wide crater left when a cubic mile of mountaintop was blasted away May 18.

Several bright orange glowing spots, some 20 to 30 feet wide, have been spotted from the air at night by observers. Geologists say this churning, 900 -degree mass is lava which, like toothpaste slowly being squeezed from an upright tube, is piling up. This is how a volcanic mountain typically begins rebuilding itself.

At the same time, seismic activity has decreased from the earthquakes felt last week into lesser harmonic tremors. Judging by earlier observed volcanoes, a "spine" could form as part of this dome. This might shatter and regrow several times during months or years of rebuilding. Lava could overflow the crater, although because of the relatively thick and sticky nature of the material inside Mt. St. Helens this probably would not travel very far down the mountain side.

What this means, says US Geological Survey geologist Tim Hait, is that while "fairly violent activity" can still be expected from the mountain, it should not be as spectacular or destructive as the initial eruption May 18 or the subsequent lesser belch a week later.

In any case, scientists are increasingly sure that Mt. St. Helens has entered a more predictable phase. They compare it to the 1957 eruption of Mt. Bezymianny on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Siberia. There, a lava dome of nearly 1,000 feet grew during the year following the eruption.

While noting this apparent rebuilding activity, however, one government geologist quickly warned that "the mountain is still erupting and dangerous and no one should go near it for at least a year or two."

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