May 7, 2008 in Nation/World

Eruption forces Chileans to flee

Eva Vergara and Patrick J. Mcdonnell Los Angeles Times
 
Associated Press photos photo

Residents wear masks as they evacuate the village of Futaleufu in a remote stretch of Chilean Patagonia on Tuesday. Associated Press photos
(Full-size photo)

SANTIAGO, Chile – A volcano that had been dormant for thousands of years spewed lava Tuesday and shot hot ash into the stratosphere, forcing an evacuation of the remote stretch of Chilean Patagonia.

The Chaiten volcano initially erupted on Friday, forcing the evacuation of most residents of the nearby town of Chaiten, 750 about miles south of Santiago, the capital. But new explosions boomed on Tuesday and officials said lava had been detected on the rim, prompting officials to order everyone to leave the town, home to about 4,400 people.

“The volcano is exploding, so a total evacuation of the town of Chaiten has been ordered,” President Michelle Bachelet announced.

Reports from the zone described Chaiten as a virtual ghost town covered in ash where only domestic animals roamed. Officials said there was no sign of the lava cascading down the side of the mountain.

Dramatic footage of the towering column of ash dominated television reports and were broadcast worldwide. The ash reached almost 20 miles into the atmosphere, according to the Chilean Ministry of Interior.

The narrow elongated nation of Chile, wedged between the Pacific and the Andes, is home to more than 2,000 volcanoes, some 500 considered active, and is one of the world’s most seismically active zones. But an eruption of the Chaiten volcano hadn’t happened for thousands of years, scientists said.

Experts were divided on how long the eruption would last and what would happen next.

Some worried about potentially destructive currents of so-called pyroclastic flows, columns of hot gas and rock that can travel at high speeds. But there was no consensus on what was likely to happen.

Authorities also evacuated the town of Futaleufu, where many of the 1,000 or so residents had already fled into nearby Argentina. Thick ash was also reported in some parts of southern Argentina.

One of the most-affected populated areas was the Argentine town of Esquel, a winter ski center and home to 32,000. A fine white dust covered streets, homes and vehicles, news reports indicated, and officials called a sanitary alert, closing schools and roads and distributing drinking water.

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