July 20, 2006

Ash Clouds Sow Fresh Fears Near Philippine Volcano

By Bobby Ranoco

LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines -- Clouds of ash and smoke sent panic through villagers living around a rumbling volcano in the central Philippines on Thursday, but experts said the alert level remained moderate.

Mount Mayon, the most active of 22 volcanoes in the Southeast Asian country, began spewing lava, ash and rocks the size of cars last week, prompting volcanologists to raise the alert level to 3 on a 1-5 scale.

The government has told 4,000 people to evacuate a danger zone of 6 km (4 miles) around the summit but many have refused to leave their homes and farms until the alert level was raised anew as officials set up relief centers to house and feed them.

On Thursday, some residents rushed to collect their children from school after seeing thick clouds of grey smoke belching from the 2,462-meter (8,077-foot) mountain.

"I am so nervous. We are taking the children home," said Gemma Arias. "We will look for a ride so we can go to the evacuation center. The volcano is erupting."

The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) has said that Mayon was showing signs of a major eruption within weeks and on Thursday urged residents to stay out of the danger zone, even if there was no imminent threat.

"Since it is collapsing in the front and on the sides, it is still dangerous," said Phivolcs chief Renato Solidum.

The Philippines lies on the "Ring of Fire," a belt of volcanoes circling the Pacific Ocean that is also prone to earthquakes.

Mayon, in Albay province in the central Bicol region, has erupted about 50 times over the last 400 years, most recently in 2000 and 2001. The most destructive eruption was in 1841 when lava flows buried a town, killing 1,200 people.

An estimated 60,000 residents of Albay province would be evacuated in the event of a major eruption, disaster officials have said.

Phivolcs has also been watching Mount Bulusan in nearby Sorsogon province after it spewed ash and steam in March. Last month, volcanologists raised the alert level there to 2.

(With reporting by Manuel Tecson)