Image: Drift River Valley flooded with volcanic ash
Game McGimsey  /  AVO-USGS via Getty Images
Volcanic ash from Mount Redoubt floods the Drift River Valley Monday. The volcano is 100 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska.
updated 3/24/2009 10:53:00 AM ET 2009-03-24T14:53:00

Rita Jackson said she was taking a sip of coffee when she tasted something funny on her lips — ash.

Alaska’s Mount Redoubt’s first cluster of eruptions in nearly 20 years — a total of six were detected between Sunday night and Monday night — sent a volcanic ash plume more than 9 miles into the air and down into nooks and crannies.

Ash missed the state’s largest city, but dusted small communities north of Anchorage. The National Weather Service had an ash advisory in effect until 5 a.m. Tuesday for the Susitna Valley. There were no reported injuries.

The wind took ash away from Anchorage, toward Willow and Talkeetna, near Mount McKinley, North America’s largest mountain.

Jackson, in Willow, was experiencing other effects, in addition to ruined coffee. “My eyes are itching really bad,” she said as she hurried to get out of a grocery store to drape protective blue tarps over a motorcycle, snowmobile and vehicles.

The Alaska Volcano Observatory reports that the sixth eruption came at 7:41 p.m. Monday. The five earlier eruptions came late Sunday night into Monday morning.

Pattern could last for months
"We expect the pattern of this event to be similar to the 1989 and 1990 eruptions, and the activity could continue along those lines for several weeks or several months," said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on a telephone conference call from Washington D.C.

Alaskans had been warned of a pending eruption of the volcano about 100 miles southwest of Anchorage since it became restless in late January. People stocked up on masks, air filters and disaster supplies.

Image: Map showing location of Mount Redoubt in Alaska
J. Bell  /  AP
Map locates the Redoubt volcano near Anchorage, Alaska
Eight Australians on a backcountry tour holed up in Shell Lake Lodge near Skwentna, about 100 miles northwest of Anchorage, waiting for the ash to settle.

“It’s a good half inch, it’s a pretty heavy dusting,” Craig Saunders, a Palmer man leading the group on an eight-day snowmobile tour of the Alaska wilds, said Monday.

Ash from Alaska’s volcanoes is like a rock fragment with jagged edges and has been used as an industrial abrasive. It can injure skin, eyes and breathing passages.

The young, the elderly and people with respiratory problems are especially susceptible to ash-related health problems. Ash can also cause damage engines in planes, cars and other vehicles.

“Anyone with a pre-existing respiratory problem is advised to stay indoors until the ash settles. If you do need to go out, a mask is recommended,” said Dr. Jay Butler, chief medical officer for the state of Alaska.

Air traffic affected
Some flights were canceled, leaving some state senators unable to fly into Juneau, and delaying consideration of a resolution accepting federal stimulus funds. Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage kept 60 planes, including fighter jets, cargo aircraft and a 747 commercial plane, in shelters.

Small planes also could be affected. Barry Stanley, owner of Denali Flying Service in Willow, canceled three flights flying supplies to the Finger Lake area west of Willow on Monday because of the ash.

Dangerous volcanoes“You can’t fly in this stuff,” he said. “Ash is too risky to risk damaging your equipment. I’m not making money if I ruin my stuff.”

Jackson, 56, got an unexpected day off when her employer told her to stay home. She said that if she had time to walk her 7-year-old dog, Lola, “I’ll put her motorcycle goggles on her.”

Some residents didn’t even notice the ash at first.

“I just thought it was snow,” said Pat Walsh, who moved to Trapper Creek near Talkeetna after retiring as a police officer in Tucson, Ariz.

Plane nearly crashed last time
The 10,200-foot Redoubt Volcano, roughly 100 miles southwest of Anchorage, last erupted during a four-month period from 1989-90.

In its last eruption, Redoubt sent ash 150 miles away into the path of a KLM jet and its four engines flamed out. The jet dropped more than 2 miles before the crew was able to restart all engines and land safely. The plane required $80 million in repairs.

The volcano became restless earlier this year. The observatory had warned in late January that an eruption could occur at any time.

Increased earthquake activity over the past 48 hours prompted scientists to raise the alert level for Mount Redoubt on Sunday.

On Sunday morning, 40 to 50 earthquakes were being recorded every hour.

A steam plume rising about 1,000 feet above the mountain peak was observed Saturday.

Three seismometers on the mountain were damaged in the eruption but seven others remained in place, said observatory geophysicist John Power.

Power said the history of past eruptions of Redoubt indicate the volcano could erupt again in the next few days or weeks.

"It's something we need to stay prepared for," he said.

More on volcanoes | Alaska

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Video: Mother Nature's might seen in Mount Redoubt

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