Guatemala’s Volcan del Fuego, one of the country’s most famous tourist attractions, erupted Thursday, spewing a cloud of ash more than 2 miles into the sky and forcing authorities to order the evacuation of thousands as lava raced down the mountain’s slopes.
More than 33,000 residents in surrounding communities were ordered to leave their homes and seek shelter at safer grounds after a series of powerful eruptions sent the volcano into overdrive. The capital, Guatemala City, lies just northeast of Fuego and officials there were on alert as the cloud of ash continued to rain down, Guatemala’s emergency agency CONRED said in a statement.
Sergio Cabanas, Guatemala’s head of emergency evacuations, said the warning went up for some 17 villages around the volcano, which sits just six miles southwest of the colonial city of Antigua, home to about 45,000. The ash cloud was blowing south-southeast and Cabanas said it didn’t look like the tourist center was in immediate danger. However, experts said they expected the eruption to last for at least 12 more hours.
Hundreds of vehicles and rooftops were blanketed with charcoal ash from the volcano, as the cloud rolled down the mountain and toward Guatemala City. Dozens of people crammed into trucks trying to escape the falling soot. The ash reduced visibility to less than 10 feet as children and elderly women filled old school buses and ambulances carrying them to safety.
CONRED said lava rolled nearly 2,000 feet down slopes billowing ash around the Volcan del Fuego (Volcano of Fire).
“A paroxysm of an eruption is taking place, a great volcanic eruption, with strong explosions and columns of ash,” said Gustavo Chicna, a volcanologist with the National Institute of Seismology, Vulcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology.
Chicna said extremely hot gases were rolling down the side of the mountain, which was almost completely shrouded in ash and smoke. He warned that flights through the area would likely be disrupted, but the airport in Guatemala City remained open. A red alert was issued, the highest alert level given, both to the south and southeast of the mountain, where, he noted, “it’s almost in total darkness.”
Chicna said ash was falling as far as 50 miles south of the volcano.
Cabanas added that the strength of the volcano has not yet calmed. There is a pyroclastic flow, but “the greater danger right now is the ash,” he said. If the lava flows continue to spread, he said, it would hinder the evacuation process.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, speaking at a press conference in Costa Rica, said the volcanic eruption could affect people as far away as Guatemala City. “It is a shame, but this is a fact of life in our country, so we will do the best we can to avoid people being harmed.”
Teresa Marroquin, disaster coordinator for the Guatemalan Red Cross, said the organization had set up 10 emergency shelters and was sending medical kits and water. “There are lots of respiratory problems and eye problems,” she told the Associated Press.
Many living around the volcano are indigenous Kakchikeles people who live in poor and isolated communities, and authorities expected it would become difficult trying to evacuate people living here and in surrounding communities.
Officials in the Mexican state of Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala, said they were monitoring the situation in case winds drove ash toward Mexico.
Fuego last erupted earlier this spring in May. A 2010 eruption at Pacaya, one of Guatemala’s four active volcanoes, covered Guatemala City in a layer of ash, and forced the evacuation of hundreds of families.