June 15, 2006

Indonesian Volcano’s Clouds Shrink After Ash Shower

By Benny Siahaya

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia -- Hot clouds from Indonesia's Mount Merapi dissipated on Thursday, a day after spreading far enough to blanket villages with ash and prompting authorities to put the volcano back on top alert again.

Merapi, which is in central Java near the ancient royal city of Yogyakarta, is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the Pacific "Ring of Fire." It has threatened a major eruption for weeks, forcing thousands of people living nearby to shuttle back and forth between their homes and evacuation shelters.

The state volcano center in Yogyakarta, the closest major city, put Merapi on top alert in mid-May, lowered its alert status on Tuesday after volcanic activities decreased, but then reinstated the highest danger status a day later.

However, the country's main volcano agency said Merapi was calming down again on Thursday, with hot clouds only stretching 4 km (2.5 miles) from the peak.

On Wednesday, searing clouds swept through the closest villages, which are located 6-7 km from Merapi's top, leaving a trail of damaged buildings and neighborhoods covered with gray ash.

Volcanologists visited the affected villages early on Thursday to assess the remaining volcanic substances and rescuers tried to clear material covering a bunker in which two people were still trapped.

Officials said there had been no reports of deaths connected with the hot ash shower on Wednesday afternoon.

Many people who had moved back to their homes in nearby villages had to return to the evacuation shelters after officials raised the alert level.

Experts fear a lava dome, building since April due to increased activity, could collapse, generating clouds of gas and lava flows that could cause fatalities.

The volcano has become more active since an earthquake last month that struck Yogyakarta and nearby areas killing more than 5,700 people.

More than 60 people were killed when Merapi last erupted in 1994, while 1,300 died in a 1930 eruption.