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January 13, 2009 4:21 am

Bogus Yellowstone evacuation notice may draw federal charges

Written by Tribune Staff

In case you didn't hear, you were supposed to evacuate your home during the recent swarm of earthquakes in Yellowstone National Park.

That was according to a self-dubbed expert who now may face criminal charges for his suspect predictions of doom.

After hundreds of small quakes shook the Park in late December, Christopher Sanders, a 35-year old natural-gas developer from Texas, created a Web page and video advising everyone within a 200-mile radius of Yellowstone to evacuate.

On Jan. 1, he posted an alert on a personal Web site warning in red letters that a super-volcanic eruption could be imminent. At the top of his page, he placed a United States Geological Survey logo under the heading, “YELLOWSTONE WARNING.”

That drew the ire of the USGS — the federal agency that actually has the authority to issue a volcano warning and that saw no imminent threat from the earthquakes.

On Jan. 2, the USGS began taking legal action to get the page removed, arguing that the page falsely created the impression it was official information.

Sanders' warnings spurred much online discussion, and even were reported by a Dutch news network.

USGS spokesperson Jessica Robertson said the agency's legal department is considering filing legal charges of impersonating a federal official and using the USGS logo without permission.

Sanders' Web page was taken offline late Thursday night, but as of press time, his video calling for evacuation remained viewable on YouTube.com. It had amassed more than 31,000 views.

In the clip, Sanders seems to blur the line between USGS fact and his own opinion.

“This would be a good time to start evacuating,” Sanders says. “Again, this is Jan. 1, 2009, and we have a warning kinda going out with the U.S. Geological Survey.”

Robertson said she wasn't familiar with the video.

“If he's saying that, he shouldn't be,” she said, adding that the legal department would look into it.

The same day his Web page warning was removed, Sanders revised the description of his YouTube video, clarifying that the USGS was not calling for an evacuation.

“Why they have not issued an emergency is why I am posting this video,” he wrote.

USGS scientists at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory closely monitored the swarm. It recorded some 900 minor quakes near Fishing Bridge between Dec. 26 and Jan. 8. The largest was a 3.9 on the Richter scale. According to an observatory release, the combined energy level of all 900 tremors would equal a single 4.5 magnitude quake.

Seismologists are still analyzing the smallest of the recent events.

On Friday, Jan. 9, observatory scientists reported a new, smaller swarm of 10 quakes in the same area — the largest registering at magnitude 3.3. Quakes greater than 3.5 are generally felt.

The observatory is a joint effort between Yellowstone, the USGS and the University of Utah. It monitors the miles-wide volcanic caldera beneath the park for seismic activity in the name of science and public safety.

Scientists believe the volcano erupted hundreds of thousands of years ago in cataclysmic fashion, burying much of the present-day United States in multiple feet of ash.

While Yellowstone's recent seismic activity was “above normal,” the observatory had no cause to fear a pending eruption or to issue a warning.

“At this time, there is no reason to believe that magma has risen to a shallow level within the crust, or that a volcanic eruption is likely. The USGS Volcano alert level for Yellowstone volcano remains at normal/green,” said the observatory in a news release.

The USGS pegs the odds of Yellowstone massively erupting any time soon at about .00014 percent.

That didn't stop Sanders from predicting trouble and setting his own alert level at “Code — Yellow.”

“This is official information in everyway [sic],” he wrote in an email to the Tribune on Jan. 2. “I would rather be wrong than have the death of countless people on my conscious [sic].”