JAKARTA - Karo residents in North Sumatra received an unpleasant surprise on the first day of the year when Mount Sinabung spewed 3 kilometers of volcanic ash on Wednesday noon.
An official at the Sinabung monitoring post, Ahmad Nabawi, said a stronger volcanic ash discharge could occur as the volcano continued to generate huge volumes of lava.
As of Wednesday, the lava volume near the peak of the volcano reached around 2.54 million cubic meters.
"If all the lava is discharged at the same time, it could reach an 8-kilometer radius. If this happens, nearby villages would be completely destroyed," Ahmad told The Jakarta Post at the Sinabung monitoring post in Simpang Empat district, Karo regency.
Ahmad said 22 eruptions had occurred on Wednesday from midnight to 11:58 a.m. A small volume of lava was seen streaming out of the volcano when the latest eruption took place. The lava flow, Ahmad said, reached up to 3 kilometers from the volcano's crater to the southeast.
"Fortunately, the nearest villages are not situated in the path of the lava, so the villages are safe for now," he continued, adding that the nearest villages included Bekerah, Simacem, Sigarang-garang and Suka Meriah.
Residents were evacuated from all the villages after Mt. Sinabung, which is 2,460 meters above sea level, started to rumble in September.
The September eruption was the first since August 2010. The 2010 eruption, which was the first eruption in almost 410 years, claimed several lives and displaced thousands.
According to the Karo administration, residents of 21 villages and two hamlets have been evacuated. The villages are all located within a 5-km radius.
As many as 19,286 people or 6,054 families have been evacuated to safer ground.
The displaced people are currently being housed at 31 different shelters, including the GBKP Payung Hall, Tanah Karo Kodim Hall, Jambur Natolu, Kabanjahe Grand Mosque, Los Tanjung Mbelang and Los Tiga Binanga.
In the past two months, 11 residents have died while hundreds more have fallen ill following the eruptions.
Most of the dead people suffered breathing difficulties, depression, asthma attacks and hypertension. The Karo administration reported that the first recorded death was on Nov. 23 while the last death was on Dec. 28.
Meanwhile, M. Ginting, a priest and displaced person from Naman Teran village, said he could feel continuous tremors.
"I notice that they [eruptions] occur every 15 minutes. The volcano discharges lava and spews volcanic ash day and night," said Ginting at the Ora et Labora shelter in Berastagi.
Despite the increase in volcanic activity, displaced persons, Ginting said, believed that the disaster would end soon.
"The displaced believe that the continual eruptions are a sign that the volcano will stop erupting soon," he said, adding that the displaced hoped that the eruptions would subside as they were bored with living in shelters for months on end with nothing to do.
Villagers living near the volcano rely on agriculture for a livelihood.
Karo is noted for its agricultural products, such as vegetables and oranges, which are marketed to Jakarta and cities across Sumatra.