Revised Fire

Not too long after I met my good friend Lars, he gave me a copy of Stephen L. Harris' book Fire Mountains of the West: The Cascade and Mono Lake Volcanoes. In it, a chapter is devoted to each major U.S. Pacific coast volcano or volcanic region. The book ends with the fictional chapter "When Mt. Shasta Erupts", detailing the projected devastation an eruption of Mt. Shasta could cause. Lars took particular delight in pointing out that one of the few voices of reason is a young, bearded geologist who, for his unpopular opinion, is reassigned to studying ash flow deposits in the Nevada desert.

Several years later, while browsing in a used book store downtown, I ran across a book called Fire and Ice. It looked interesting, so I read part. Pretty soon I realized that this was an earlier version of Fire Mountains. On a whim, I decided to look for the mention of the bearded geologist in the Mt. Shasta story.

To my surprise, I couldn't find the reference. I re-read the entire story, but there was no mention of him. How strange. Then it hit me: there were other differences between the two stories. In this early version, no one was killed when Mt. Shasta erupted. This was in stark contrast to the later version I was familiar with, in which several hundred people died. What accounted for the difference?

The answer was the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. The original version had been written before that volcanic mountain blew apart spectacularly. After the eruption, the author revised the story to reflect the behavior of real people: residents clamoring to go home, officials downplaying the danger the mountain still posed, and timber industry executives pushing for immediate cutting of damaged trees. Only the geologist who wasn't in someone's financial pocket had the courage to say that the danger was not over. No one listened, and about 57 people died.

It's rather a sad fact that the revision, based on observed behavior, brought more loss of life, not less.

Last updated 3 June 2000
All contents ©2000-2002 Mark L. Irons