Major ash explosion feared at Philippine volcano

Mayon volcano in the Philippines could soon unleash a huge cloud of deadly gases and ash, experts warned on Sunday, as 40 000 people prepared for a second week in crowded evacuation centres.

Four powerful ash explosions rocked the spectacular 2 460m peak on Saturday, covering nearby communities to the north-west with a light layer of dust, government vulcanologists said.

Mayon, where activity has picked up over the past week, is now belching a more lethal “pyroclastic flow” of hot volcanic gas and dust, rather than slow-moving lava, said Ed Laguerta, head of the volcano monitoring observatory.

Unlike the trails of lava that have been slowly flowing down the volcano’s slopes for weeks, so-called “pyroclastic flows” can cover a wide area very swiftly, moving at speeds of about 60kph

“We want to give the volcano a wide berth,” said Ernesto Corpuz, head of the volcano monitoring division of the Philippine Institute of Vulcanology and Seismology.

An eruption at Mayon in 1993 killed 77 people who were caught unaware by the deadly clouds of ash and gases.

The government has evacuated about 40 000 residents living in a 6km to 8km danger zone around the volcano, herding them into 24 overcrowded evacuation centres, most of them schools.

Many residents, however, still enter the danger zone to work on their farms, guard their belongings and attend to other personal matters.

The full extent of the danger posed by the volcano is not readily apparent as its crater has largely been obscured by thick clouds for days, preventing the public from seeing the ash explosions.

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, who visited Mayon on Saturday, has promised more aid for the villagers including the delivery of prefabricated homes and tents, in a bid to ease overcrowding at the evacuation centres.

Some have been forced to sleep in rooms with as many as 50 other people, raising fears about the possibility that disease could spread.

Despite the dangers of Mayon, busloads of evacuees could been seen leaving the centre in Legaspi City on Sunday to visit their homes in Bonga village, inside the danger zone, where people said they could hear a distant rumbling.

Seventy-four-year old farmer Maximo Aydalla said he was in Bonga on Saturday when the ash explosions took place.

“I saw the smoke rise and then fall but we were still at a safe distance. If it was going our way, we would have run,” he said.

Despite the danger, he returned to Bonga again on Sunday to pick up drinking water and firewood.

“It is a bit dangerous. I am not afraid because I keep an eye out,” he said.

There have been no recorded fatalities so far from either the volcano or from diseases at the evacuation centre.

Relief officials said they were checking on television reports that one person had died of a heart attack.

Mayon is the country’s most-active volcano and past eruptions have led to more than 1 000 deaths.—AFP

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