MANILA - A volcano near the Philippines capital spewed ash up to 15km into the sky on Sunday (Jan 12), prompting the evacuation of thousands of people, the cancellation of flights and warnings of a possible explosive eruption and volcanic tsunami.
Taal volcano, one of the country’s most active, is in the middle of a lake about 70km south of the centre of the capital, Manila. As tremors shook the area, volcanic lightning flickered in the column of steam and ash.
This led the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology to raise its alert level to 4 out of 5 – meaning “hazardous explosive eruption is possible within hours to days”.
The institute also warned of possible hazards of a volcanic tsunami and rapid currents of hot gas and volcanic matter that could hit areas around the Taal lake, a popular weekend getaway from Manila.
The evacuation of about 8,000 residents of the volcano island and other high-risk towns is underway, with about 6,000 already out of the danger zone as of early Sunday evening, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council told reporters.
Ash fell as far away as Manila, prompting the suspension of flights at the capital’s busy international airport. General Manager Ed Monreal said the suspension would continue into Monday because there was ash on the runway.
Local authorities cancelled school classes scheduled for Monday and urged people to stay indoors. President Rodrigo Duterte had instructed authorities to move people within the perimeter of Taal out of the danger zone, his spokesman said in a statement.
The ash plume was clearly visible from the nearby city of Tagaytay, a well-frequented viewing spot for the volcano.
“We were having lunch when we heard rumbling. We saw the volcano erupting. It rained and some small pebbles fell to the ground,” Mr Jon Patrick Yen, a restaurant customer in Tagaytay, said.
Meanwhile, flight operations at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport have been temporarily suspended due to the volcanic ash from the eruption of Taal Volcano, the Manila International Airport Authority tweeted.
Passengers have been advised to coordinate with their respective airlines for details on flight schedules.
The volcano that draws many tourists because of its picturesque setting amid a lake belched steam, ash and small rocks on Sunday, prompting residents to flee from nearby villages and authorities to raise the danger level.
Renelyn Bautista, a 38-year-old housewife from Batangas province’s Laurel town, said she immediately fled from her home with her two children, including a 4-month-old baby, after Taal erupted and the ground shook mildly twice.
“We hurriedly evacuated when the air turned muddy because of the ashfall and it started to smell like gunpowder,” Bautista said.
Authorities have also recorded a swarm of earthquakes, some of them felt with rumbling sounds, and a slight inflation of the volcano edifice, the institute said in a statement.
The institute reminded the public that the small island where the volcano lies is a “permanent danger zone,” although fishing villages have existed there for years. It asked nearby coastal communities “to take precautionary measures and be vigilant of possible lake water disturbances related to the ongoing unrest”.
Villagers in several villages and towns around the lake were also asked by officials to evacuate to safer areas.
Heavy to light ashfall was reported in towns and cities several kilometers from the volcano, and officials advised residents to stay indoors and don masks.
Motorists were hampered by poor visibility, which was worsened by rainy weather.
Hotels, shopping malls and restaurants line an upland road along a ridge overlooking the lake and the volcano in Tagaytay city, a key tourism area that could be affected by a major eruption.
Authorities recorded a swarm of earthquakes, some of them felt with rumbling sounds, and a slight inflation of portions of the volcano ahead of Sunday’s steam-driven explosion, officials said.
Taal, one of the world's smallest volcanoes, is among about two dozen active volcanoes in the Philippines, which lies on the so-called Pacific "Ring of Fire", a seismically active region that is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.