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Thousands evacuated as Chile volcano roars back to life


chile mapSpectacular bursts of volcanic lightning and lava lit up the night sky in southern Chile as the Calbuco volcano erupted twice after laying dormant for half a century, forcing some 5,000 people to evacuate.

The surprise eruptions prompted officials to declare a state of emergency, send in the army and evacuate a 21-kilometer (13-mile) radius around the volcano, which last erupted 54 years ago and had not shown any signs of increased activity.

The eruptions sowed panic in the nearby city of Puerto Montt, a tourist gateway to the popular Patagonia region whose mayor said residents were “very, very frightened,” amid warnings that melting snow and ice could flood rivers.

The massive ash clouds belched into the sky forced airlines to cancel flights and drifted as far away as southern Argentina — including the picturesque ski resort of Bariloche, which warned people to stay home to avoid inhaling dust particles.

There were no immediate reports of injuries. A 21-year old mountain climber was initially reported missing, but later turned up alive.

The first eruption, which started around 6:00 pm (2100 GMT) Wednesday and lasted about 90 minutes, spewed a giant mushroom cloud of ash 10 kilometers into the sky, which turned hues of pink and yellow as the sun set over the area.

Seven hours later, the volcano erupted again, this time shooting lava into the air and generating volcanic lightning, a phenomenon researchers believe is caused by the emission of large amounts of volcanic material charged with static electricity.

Bluish-white bolts of lightning cut through the red and orange plumes of lava in a stunning display of nature’s power that played out against the backdrop of the night sky.

Chile’s National Geology and Mines Service warned a third eruption could follow.

– ‘Situation unpredictable’ –

On a 0-8 scale measuring volcano eruption strength, the first one came in at four or five, the interior ministry said.

The second was more powerful still.

President Michelle Bachelet said she would travel to the affected area Thursday along with several ministers.

“The ash might damage crops, animal feed, bridges, roads, people’s work routines, tourism and especially their health,” she said, calling on residents to wear protective masks, which authorities were handing out in both Chile and Argentina.

“We don’t know how the situation is going to evolve. It’s pretty unpredictable,” Bachelet said.

Until minutes before the blast, volcano eruption monitoring systems had picked up nothing. In fact, volcano watchers in Chile had been watching another one, Villarica, for a possible eruption.

“The explosion caused immediate hysteria among residents. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” said Marcia Claro, the owner of a cafeteria in Puerto Varas, a town of 38,000 people on the shores of Lake Llanquihue, at the foot of the volcano.

Television footage after the first eruption showed large traffic jams and long lines at gas stations as an ash cloud blanketed Puerto Montt, where a red alert was declared, along with nearby Puerto Varas.

Nevertheless, by Thursday afternoon the ash cloud had drifted northeast and residents of Puerto Varas were going about their business as usual — albeit with a wary eye on the volcano 40 kilometers away.

The region is popular with tourists, with beautiful mountain landscapes dotted with volcanoes and lakes with beaches of black sand.

– Turbulent geology –

School was cancelled in the region, as well as in Bariloche, in Argentina, some 100 kilometers from the volcano, where a fine layer of ash settled on roads and buildings.

The ash accumulation around the volcano was nearly a meter (three feet) high in some spots, causing the roofs of some houses to cave in.

The 2,000-meter (6,500-foot) volcano is located in the Los Lagos region, some 1,400 kilometers south of the capital Santiago. It had last erupted in 1961 and showed light activity in 1972, said the National Geology and Mines Service.

It is the second volcano in southern Chile to erupt since March 3, when Villarrica emitted a brief but fiery burst of ash and lava.

That eruption caused authorities to evacuate more than 3,500 people.

Chile has about 90 active volcanoes.

Geologist Alfredo Lahsen of the University of Chile told the long, narrow country, the world’s largest copper producer, to look on the bright side of its turbulent geology.

“If we didn’t have volcanoes, we wouldn’t have the rich gold and copper mining activity that we have in Chile. You have to see the positives, too,” he told radio station Cooperativa de Santiago

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