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Front Page » April 20, 2006 » Local News » Not a place for quakes? Think again
Published 3,455 days ago

Not a place for quakes? Think again

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The epicenter of the 1988 Ferron Quake was near this spot in the San Rafael Swell. Earthquakes have been happening in the area for a long time.

Tuesday morning at 5:15 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, sirens wailed and church bells rang throughout San Francisco, Calif., as the 100th anniversary of the great earthquake of 1906 was observed.

At the same time people in earthquake zones across the west read in newpapers, and heard on the news, statistics, information and the possibilities about earthquakes in their towns.

In Utah, any time there is a small shake or the story of a major quake in another country, articles, and new stories appear in the press discussing what will happen when the Wastach Fault or any number of other more minor faults let go. The "big one" as it is called, is bound to happen someday and estimates say that thousands will die and many of the buildings in the tremors path will be either destroyed or damaged beyond repair.

From the point of view of eastern Utah residents, there seems to be little concern about a quake that could cause major damage here. Most people reflect on the spillover effect that will come from a major quake on the other side of the mountains. They are concerned with such things as people coming here for help, how a quake would disrupt the commerce and what other kinds of burdens it might put on the rural parts of the state.

However, as any long time resident of the area knows, earthquakes over the mountain are not all they have to worry about. The shakes can happen here, despite the overwhelming information that most quakes in this area would be minor.

It may be that the Wasatch Fault gets the notoriety, just this past January 26 a small 3.8 quake hit Emery county with the epicenter somewhere in the San Rafael Swell.

A leader to a larger quake? Probably not, but this area is not without its shaking ground over the years.

Probably the quakes that people who have been around for a few years remember the most were a few that took place in the late 1980's.

One took place on February 3, 1989 when a 3.0 quake took place about five miles northeast of Helper. The shake was hard enough that one of the local mines shut down to look for damage, but none was found.

But before that on August 14, 1988, a 5.6 quake rattled the entire area, and bled over into other parts of Utah as well. The quake, at the time, was the largest in Utah since 1975 and was completely unexpected in a usually quiet area of the state when it comes to seismic activity. And it wasn't the only quake that day. The first came at about 1 p.m. when the ground shook with a 3.5 quake which was centered about 14 miles east of Ferron. Then, a few minutes later, a second quake sent the ground rolling with a 4.3 shake. The 5.6 quake took place at a little after 2 p.m.

The quakes showed that there were a series of unknown faults in the area, a problem that the entire surface of the planet has. Faults generally only become known to scientists when they do create a quake, and up until the time that the Emery county quakes took place, few expected there were any in the area.

At the time state geologist Genevieve Atwood pointed out an important point that everyone in the eastern Utah area should be mindful of, even today.

For larger map, click on image (opens in a new window)

"The Emery County earthquakes should teach Utahns a valuable lesson," she was quoted as saying in the Salt Lake Tribune on August 15 of that year. "Just because you don't live along the Wasatch Front doesn't mean you won't be subjected to strong earth tremors."

The quakes that day created little more than excitement in the area, but some rock falls did cover some roads for a few hours. In addition a few chimneys and some foundations were found to have new cracks in them, and some merchandise in stores and plates in some homes were dumped from shelves.

Later that week, a few aftershocks were also felt in the area, including one that registered 4.6 the next Thursday. Later investigations showed that the epicenter of all the quakes were near Fullers Bottom, upriver from the Wedge Overlook.

Immediately after that people in the area became quite interested in earthquake preparedness, and attended meetings by state officials who showed them slide shows and gave out literature on how to get ready for quakes.

Today that interest has died down, despite small shakes that have occurred like the one in January of this year. But for scientists, the area still holds a lot of mystery, particularly when it comes to ground action. And they are still measuring what is going on here.

There are a series of seismic stations throughout the area. Some are presently inactive while others continually look for ground movement. Stations are located in spots where many people would be surprised to see them. Areas like Bear Canyon, Dugout Coal Mine, Emma Park, Ford Ridge, Pasture Canyon, Roan Cliffs, as well as stations in Sunnyside and Price still exist.

Certainly what came to be known as the Ferron Quake sticks out in people's memories, but that wasn't the first, and some of the remembered quakes took place directly in Carbon County. On August 2, 1968 a 3.5 quake hit Hiawatha; then later that year on November 17 a 4.6 quake shook the ground in Wattis. In June of 1971 a 3.2 quake took place near Scofield, then on April 14, 1972 another shook the ground with a 3.6 quake near Sunnyside. Another 3.9 quake hit that same area on August 10, 1973.

Certainly there have been many since the area was settled by anglo pioneers and with certainly many before that as well. Quakes are a part of life in the west in general. As for numbers of quakes and their potential for strength?

"I'm no seismologist, but I wouldn't rule out anything in our area," says Michelle Fleck, who is now a dean at the College of Eastern Utah, but spent many years as a geology professor at the institution.

As for being prepared for an earthquake, the preparations are similar to that for many disasters. Every person in a household should have a 72 hour kit and should have a place where they can meet should they be apart at the time of the disaster. If a quake happens while one is outside, stay out of the way of falling debris and power lines. If inside a building, find a doorway or a strong piece of furniture to hide under. Do not run out of a building during a quake because falling pieces off the structure can be deadly.

Carbon County has disaster plans in place should any kind of event take place, and preparations have been beefed up even more since the terrorist attacks of 2001 because of homeland security concerns. So there is little mystery about that.

The only question then is when one could occur, and that could be at anytime and anywhere in the area. No one can presently predict any of that.

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April 20, 2006
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