How dangerous is Washington State, actually?
September 13, 2020 10:56 AM   Subscribe

Earthquakes and volcanoes and tsunamis, oh my! Also wildfires. My husband and I have absolutely fallen in love with the state of Washington. We are seriously considering moving to the greater Seattle region. However, the more research I do, the more I keep reading about the potential for earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and wildfires. I'm having difficulty finding resources regarding how serious a threat these things actually are. Please help me understand if these things are serious risks that should legitimately dissuade us from moving to the region!

We are from the midwest, from a boring little state that has to worry about approximately zero of those natural disasters, and on paper the articles I'm reading are starting to sound like potential deal breakers. Tsunami zones! Lahers! Exploding volcanoes covered in glaciers!

I know that we're all going to die someday and I'm willing to live with some additional risk in exchange for living my life in an area that I love. The problem is that I'm having trouble getting a good feel for how much risk we're actually talking about here.

I have a suspicion that many of the articles I'm reading are somewhat sensationalised. I'm trying to find more balanced information, but it's surprisingly difficult. For instance, I can't seem to locate one entire map of the state of Washington with volcano and laher danger zones highlighted. Nor a map detailing tsunami threat zones.

I'd love to just find a statistic that said, 'If you live in this region, your odds of being gravely injured/killed in an earthquake are 12%.' I realize that actually finding a statistic like that is wildly unlikely, given factors like the unpredictability of these disasters, your exact location, the security of your home, etc.

So I guess what I really need is some type of 'feeling' for how likely it is that if I live in the Greater Seattle area, I'm going to experience a devastating and potentially life threatening natural disaster. How serious are the threats of volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfires respectively? In addition, are there areas in that region where you can live/measures you can take to mitigate your risk?

Thank you so much for any help, insights, resources, personal experience, anything!
posted by quiet_musings to Travel & Transportation around Washington (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Try looking up the address of a house you're interested in with this tool that calculates a risk score. I would be most concerned about the threat of wildfires as climate change progresses. Even if you aren't at direct risk from a fire, the smoke is unbearable.
posted by pinochiette at 11:05 AM on September 13, 2020 [5 favorites]

Have you poked around at the DNR website? It has map layers for tsunami, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc. note that tsunami zone mapping isn’t always complete due to lack of funding...

As you suspected, it’s going to be difficult to get a percentage risk. Also unfortunately, the prettiest areas are the ones that will have increased risk, due to being near the coast/active fault zones. I’m more familiar with California and Oregon, but the natural hazard risk is something you prepare for and then just have in the back of your mind. Tornadoes and hurricanes always seemed way scarier to us, but that’s just because we weren’t used to them.
posted by umwhat at 11:36 AM on September 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A lot of the West Coast disasters (as opposed to Midwestern disasters, like blizzards and tornadoes) are rare-but-deadly. A really big earthquake, a volcano, a tsunami - these are things that may not happen in your lifetime but will be devastating when they do happen. They're also a lot harder to mitigate if you live in the affected area. So for those, this is a more existential question - are you willing to live in an area with a small risk of a big disaster?

Wildfires, on the other hand, are a seasonal, predictable, and devastating disaster. We don't have good strategies (yet) for stopping them. As pinochiette said, even if you aren't right in their path, the air-quality effects are terrible and pervasive. You may or may not find them bearable. If you or your family members have asthma, that is a very real thing to factor in.

I grew up in the Midwest (blizzards, mostly, rare tornadoes where I was), lived in Central Texas (occasional tornadoes, hurricane remnants/flash flooding), lived in northern California (wildfires, earthquakes) and now live in the Northeast (blizzards, occasional tornadoes, worse rainstorm/hurricanes than Austin). No place has no risk, but out of all of those, it was the wildfires I found most unlivable.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:39 AM on September 13, 2020 [17 favorites]

Unless you're on the Pacific coast, the threat of a Pacific tsunami is not worth worrying about. If the right quake hits the right fault in Puget Sound, then there could be a localized tsunami effect on top of the big quake. I grew up there and I don't think most Seattleites worry about tsunamis, except when they're vacationing on the Oregon coast where there are Tsunami evacuation route signs everywhere.

The best way to mitigate your personal risk in an earthquake is to live and work in a building designed not to fall on you during one. What you can't really mitigate is the risk that a volcano/quake/tsunami damages the infrastructure you rely on (water/power/transportation). This will be widespread, even if a quake doesn't actually hurt you or damage your house.

The big Lahar risk is from Mt Rainier and the risks are really localized.
posted by BungaDunga at 11:40 AM on September 13, 2020 [7 favorites]

Best answer: The threat of earthquakes in the PNW are complicated: we're due for "a big one" but that estimate is like, on a scale of hundreds or a thousand years either direction. Smaller earthquakes are uncommon enough, but when one happens, it will be a Big Fucking Deal. Some folks are okay living with that in the background, ignoring it, or don't know about it. It really may never happen in our lifetimes, or it could happen tomorrow. You're not going to find odds on this one. It will likely be an 8+ on the richter scale, and depending exactly where it hits, wreck large parts of cities on the west coast along I5. Its a big unknown. The New Yorker wrote a pretty famous-ish article about it. Maybe read it with a couple stiff drinks. Its not sensationalized much.

It's like the last thing I need for my PNW 2020 disaster bingo card though... Things have gotten far worse here in my lifetime in terms of natural disasters. Flooding is more common, drought is more common, fires are more common.

The risk of fires is growing every year. This summer in the PNW was relatively cool, but literally one bad week of before-unheardof weather wrecked everything to catastrophic levels.
posted by furnace.heart at 11:41 AM on September 13, 2020 [11 favorites]

I’m going to push back on one of your assumptions, which is that the Midwest is boring. You don’t have to worry about the types of natural disasters that people in Washington do, but that’s not to say there are no natural disasters. You have to deal with tornadoes, drought, flash floods, blizzards, and the like. (On preview, everyone else is saying this too.) You probably don’t think of those as big problems, though, and there are two major reasons why. First, you’re used to them. A big tornado is actually a traumatic event, but you see them on the news so often that it desensitizes you. Second, there are plans to deal with them. You’ve heard the tornado sirens, and you’ve seen the snowplows. (Unless you live in Columbus...) Those are visible reminders of the authorities’ preparedness. The disasters in Washington are different, but both factors will eventually make you feel safe there, too.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:44 AM on September 13, 2020 [9 favorites]

I came here to link to the New Yorker article. I give to everyone who moves here (Oregon) from other parts of the country.
posted by neuron at 11:52 AM on September 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

This is going to come down to a devil you know versus devil you don't know assessment, I think. As a West Coast native your Midwestern tornadoes and 50-below-zero winters sound pretty scary to me.

Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions do not follow the predictable seasonal pattern that Midwestern severe weather events do but there are still ways to mitigate the risks they pose to your life and property. Earthquakes are very much survivable, not even necessarily that disruptive, in areas using proper building placement, design, and construction techniques—so, e.g., don't buy an unreinforced masonry house set on in-fill. Tsunami and volcano risk is also going to be pretty localized, see map resources shared above, although air quality problems from volcanic activity would be a more general problem. You can hedge against infrastructure and public services disruption to some extent by maintaining emergency supplies of drinking water, shelf-stable foods, and battery/generator power at home.

Wildfire might merit greater concern. This is a recurring seasonable problem, fire frequency and severity have both gotten progressively worse in the last several years, and it is unclear at best how regional governments will manage a longer-term response. While fire hazard is also fairly localized fires can rapidly spread in unexpected ways and encroach on areas that would not usually be considered high-risk, and the air quality problems they pose (which are no joke) affect the whole region.
posted by 4rtemis at 12:25 PM on September 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

You're from the midwest? Doesn't that mean you have TORNADOES?? [shivers]

I've lived in the Columbia Gorge my whole life, til this last couple years, and now I'm in a Portland suburb. I consider us pretty darn safe. We don't have tornadoes, or hurricanes, really. The rivers for the most part stay where they belong, area-depending. The volcanoes... well, I remember Mt. St. Helens, but [shrug] the chances are really pretty low. And I grew up between Mts. Hood and Adams. Earthquakes? There's been one I've actually felt - and many people have never felt any. A big one? Well, yeah, the possibility is there - but it's pretty much true everywhere.

Snow? Get decent snow tires, and you're good. If you're worried about ALWAYS having power, get a generator. Wind? Put stuff away or really tie it down... and if you tie it down, expect it'll eventually get torn up.

The fires? It really depends on where you are. The Willamette Valley is sort of freaking out right now, because it doesn't happen there. In the Gorge, though - it's an every year thing. I thought I was good for it, being down here in the metro - but I'm only about a mile from the edge of a level one. So, my household, being so familiar with the drill, packed days ago and then relaxed. Living in the Gorge, especially when we were on a more-rural property, we spent at least a couple weeks every summer/fall in ready-to-go mode... but fewer actual days that we were truly concerned, than say, people in hurricane areas.

And I've never lost a house to a wildfire, despite being evacuated or about to be, more times than I can remember. Instead, it was a wiring issue. THAT is what worries me. I have zero control over that... heck, it was the newest wiring in that house! At least with wildfires, I can make sure the house is prepped for it, that my family is prepped for it, and pay attention during the relevant season.

Then again... why am I trying to convince you it's safe? I don't want anyone else to move here. We have too many transplants as it is.
posted by stormyteal at 12:28 PM on September 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

I of the largest earthquakes in continental US history was in Missouri, so... I don't really know of anyplace I could live without some danger from something, at least not in this garbage-fire country and no place is going to let me emigrate there. I'm utterly terrified of tornadoes, which also often strike without warning (there was no warning siren on the one I saw when visiting Midwest relatives, and I was in a store with lots of big glass windows, and I've never been so scared in my life). Relatives have lost their land in terrible floods.

I guess it just depends on what your bigger fear is of risk, and how much the unpredictability of it matters. I keep a close watch on the earthquake preparedness information around me, know where my hub is, etc. If I could afford some earthquake retrofitting for my house, I'd do that, and it might be something to look into if you decide to house-hunt up here.

I agree with kevinbelt in that some of it is what you're normalized to. Because I've been in so many earthquakes in Washington and California, they are scary to me but less than they are to my friends who've moved here from other areas. If you're interested in the Seattle area, tsunamis are less of a danger than the coast (Seattle is not close to the coast, it's on Puget Sound, and I-5 is not on the coast either). You could choose to live farther away, toward the eastern or middle part of the state, but there's less going on over there, and then you run into wildfire danger. Right now, as we choke on smoke from the Eastern Washington and Oregon fires, those seem like far more of a threat to me, but as climate change worsens, maybe that kind of thing isn't confined to the west anymore, and if you're living in the city, you won't see the fires, just the smoke. I will say that I've lived most of my life in western Washington (I'm 60), some of it in California and Nevada, and I've never seen this problem with smoke till 2017.

I feel like the risks you're reading about are probably, on paper, pretty scary, and that's understandable. They're going to seem catastrophized when you're reading a bunch of articles. If you do decide to move here, don't buy houses near major rivers, anywhere close to Mt. Rainier, don't buy a house made of bricks (there's a reason you don't see a lot of them here), and if you go close to the Sound, get up higher on the hillside. Learn what to do to earthquake prepare your home, what to keep in stock for emergencies.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 12:39 PM on September 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

I don't know what you consider "safe" and "dangerous", so I'm not going to add to what people have already said.

The best I think you'll come to the statistics you're looking for is insurance estimates. You can get estimates even if you don't buy a home. For instance, earthquakes are a thing in the Pacific Northwest - and, like many people have said above, I consider it the most prominent risk in the area. There was a magnitude 4.6 one just a year ago that was sufficient to wake me up at night (albeit not much more than that). I would never get earthquake insurance in the Midwest, but I pay $378 every year for earthquake insurance on my home for roughly $400,000 in coverage (home value plus property). To a first order, that means that the insurance company thinks I have less than a 0.1% chance every year of my house collapsing from an earthquake.

In reality, there are many factors that come into play - notably I have a 15% deductible, the more likely scenario is partial damage to my house, and the insurance company pays themselves for profit, but this is one way to get some information to evaluate your risk. You seem to be focused on injury to yourself, but home owner's insurance is still a sorta reasonable proxy - my earthquake insurance covers injury to other people as well.

If there was a 12% chance of dying here from a major disaster even over your entire life, I would suggest nobody would ever live here.
posted by saeculorum at 12:40 PM on September 13, 2020 [5 favorites]

If you move to the Greater Seattle area, there is an almost zero chance you will be killed by anything you've described. 100% no no long explanation needed. Don't worry about it.
posted by ixipkcams at 12:48 PM on September 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

The one thing I always tell people when they ask about factors to consider when they're looking at moving to Portland, OR is how they feel about the dark. Portland is at the same latitude as Montreal. Washington is further north than that.

Are you prone to seasonal depression?
posted by aniola at 1:13 PM on September 13, 2020 [8 favorites]

Best answer: As others have mentioned above, wildfire smoke can be dangerous and is sure to recur every year. We currently live very close to Washington and have been unable to step outside for days because the air quality has been so bad. I woke up the other night with a burning throat from the air pollution (windows closed, new and well-sealed building). We have an air purifier going, which has eased the headaches somewhat, but it is a very boring and unhealthy way to live for weeks or months at a time (wildfire season apparently lasts through October). Really not fun and, frankly, heartbreaking to deal with this with kids. My toddler keeps asking to go to nature and doesn’t quite understand why we keep saying no. “Toxic air” hasn’t quite made it into his vocabulary yet.

To make this more concrete, here is a screenshot of a list of the cities with the worst air quality in the world. This is what Washington looks like now (separate links). These are not yellow filters, this is not fog. It sucks. Can you deal with this every year for weeks or months? We can’t. We’re moving once it’s safe to leave our apartment again.
posted by saltypup at 2:02 PM on September 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

It depends on your risk tolerance and what you consider scary.

My Washington friends think I'm nuts for living on the Gulf Coast because they're scared of hurricanes. To me, hurricanes are somewhat predictable and you usually have days or weeks of notice. But they are only going to get worse.

But so is everything.

Parts of Washington have relatively mild weather, but you are facing the low-but-there risk of earthquakes and volcanoes suddenly occurring with no notice. Wildfire season is only going to get worse with climate change (but so is everything).

You also have socioeconomic upheaval. If you and your husband are people of color or LGBTQIA, pull up the SPLC hate map and take a look at Washington. You may be surprised how active hate groups are in WA compared with other states.

Pick your poison and what you can deal with.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:29 PM on September 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

This is a MeFi discussion of that New Yorker article. I remember finding it fascinating at the time. Wildfires are apparently the canary in the Climate Crisis coalmine, increasing quite a bit. You could talk to someone in the insurance industry, they grasp risk very well, and an assessment of home and car insurance might reflect risk around the country.
posted by theora55 at 4:40 PM on September 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

It really depends on what part of the state you are looking at. There are really different ecosystems and climates depending on what side of the Cascades you are on.

Wildfires are sadly a regular occurrence in our state, but they happen in the Central and Eastern parts where it's drier overall. If you live in the Puget Sound region you aren't really in danger of having your house burn down from a wildfire, but we are getting used to a regular smoke season as fires break out North, East, and South of us. It's sad. It should galvanize us all to do more to address climate change.

If you are in the Puget Sound region, rather than the coast you are not really in danger from a Tsunami. Think of the Sound like toilet bowl. the waters will swirl and rise, but we have a huge peninsula between us and the Pacific Ocean. Now if you live on the coast that is another issue.

Volcanoes are an issue, but they are heavily monitored. Rainier could blow.

Earthquakes are the biggest potential threat if you live in the Puget Sound region. But you can prepare for those. I got my house seimically retrofitted to prevent it from sliding off its foundation. You should have 2-3 weeks of water & food and alternative heat & light sources, but that's doable. I think about it, but I don't live in fear from earthquakes.
posted by brookeb at 5:56 PM on September 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Frankly, as someone who lived most of their life in California and now lives in Oregon, and loves the West coast, I’m questioning whether it’s livable. I don’t want to move, but this is the second time in three years that I have narrowly escaped having my home (one in CA, one in OR) burned to the ground. Our apartment is only livable because we have two air purifiers going full blast day and night. The air outside is the worst in the world. The smoke isn’t always this bad, but it comes every year now, and the fires are likely only going to get worse.

I love the West, it’s my home and I don’t want to leave but I’m not sure it’s rational to stay here. Even short exposure to the smoke brings on headaches, and the long term health consequences could be severe. Go to and look at the map of the entire West coast. This is the new normal. Climate change is real and hitting us hard. Things are different from how they were even five years ago.
posted by sumiami at 7:19 PM on September 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The air quality in Oregon, Washington and California during wildfire season is really unacceptable for people who have underlying health problems. Even in healthy people it causes unbearable headaches and difficulty breathing. The air quality problem affects people who live hundreds of miles from the actual fires. The wildfires are likely to continue every year because of poor forest management for the last few decades. Poor forest management is likely to continue. It is too depressing for me to cite all the articles here. (Besides, I have a bad headache and my throat really hurts from the smoke.)

The other disasters are infrequent and can be prepared for, especially by choosing location and home and work building wisely. Wildfires are a sure thing every year for the next 20 years at least, and they really damage your health and ruin your quality of life for weeks or months at a time. Also, it is upsetting to actually know people whose houses burned down and whose pets and relatives were burned alive trying to escape a wildfire. I second sumiami: it may just not be rational to live on the west coast anymore.
posted by KayQuestions at 1:57 AM on September 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Again, perspective is warranted here. Without any attempt to minimize the impact of the wildfires, there have been 27 deaths across the entire West Coast from wildfires so far in 2020. There have been 17 murders in Seattle alone so far in 2020 this year. There were 41 murders in San Francisco alone in 2019. There were 275 murders in Washington in 2018.

Wildfires are scary, and I hate the smoke right now as much as anybody, but they are not a significant risk to the average person living on the West Coast - especially not in Seattle. Again, if wildfires were a significant risk, homeowner's insurance would be commensurately high. In fact, Washington has very cheap homeowner's insurance.

(as an aside, murder rates in the West Cost are lower than the rest of the United States)
posted by saeculorum at 12:05 PM on September 14, 2020

To Stormyteal, "The Willamette Valley is sort of freaking out right now, because it doesn't happen there." Freaking out is something said by someone who hasn't evacuated or seen their neighbor's house burn down. Me and my family have been evacuated since Wednesday and an uncontrolled fire is 4 miles from a home of 40 years. Keep your psychological profiles to yourself.
posted by CollectiveMind at 12:43 AM on September 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: To circle back to this thread, here's a very useful map from ProPublica on the various changes we'll experience from climate change. You can search on a county level and see what will happen.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:40 AM on September 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much for all of the incredibly helpful help. We haven't decided for sure yet but I'm thinking maybe not Washington? Among other things, we both have asthma and I don't know if we could get through a yearly wildfire season. I just posted a new AskMeFi question about location suggestions. Thank you again lovely internet people!
posted by quiet_musings at 6:32 PM on September 15, 2020

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