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5 Pierce County school districts participate in lahar evacuation drill

If Mount Rainier were to erupt, it could trigger a lahar event, which emergency managers say would threaten the lives of thousands of people.

PUYALLUP, Wash. — Five school districts and several Pierce County cities and towns participated in what the city of Puyallup called the biggest lahar drill in the country Friday.

Students from the Puyallup, Orting, Sumner-Bonney Lake, White River and Carbonado Historical school districts took part in the drill and walked their respective lahar evacuation routes in preparation for the possibility of a Mount Rainier eruption.

During the exercise, which took place from 9 a.m. to noon, the city of Puyallup’s emergency operations center was activated to coordinate resources, receive communications from the field and assure the students’ safe movement.

A lahar event, which causes debris flows of mud, rocks and water to ripple through river valleys, is predicted to occur at Mount Rainier in the next 500 to 1,000 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. If a lahar event occurred, Puyallup Valley residents could be in imminent danger. Lahars can reach 400 feet in depth and range in speed from a few meters per second to over 20 miles per hour, according to Puyallup emergency management.

RELATED: Here's what western Washington residents should know about lahars

The drill was for students and faculty only, but residents were warned to expect higher than normal pedestrian traffic Friday morning in Puyallup, Sumner, Orting and other areas of Pierce County.

The goal of the drill was for students to familiarize themselves with evacuation routes and learn about tools to help them in a real-life scenario.

The idea was born out of the East Pierce Interlocal Coalition, which is made up of emergency management departments and first responders. Puyallup Police Chief Scott Engle said the response to a lahar event needs to be regional, which is why the various communities partnered together to make the region-wide drill happen.

“It took a lot of work, but we really need to thank each school district,” said Puyallup Emergency Manager Kirstin Hofmann. “They are the ones with boots on the ground handling the kids and getting them evacuated safely. Communication has been critical to this drill, and the schools have been fantastic with keeping an open line of communication with us.”

Even though the drill wasn’t for the general public, emergency managers encourage residents to be prepared for a lahar event, which includes:

Making a plan. Know the evacuation route near your house and how you will evacuate.

Having an emergency kit. Create a kit with two weeks' of essentials, such as food and water, a flashlight and blankets.

Communicating. Create a contact list of friends and family and plan to communicate with them before, during and after an emergency.

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