Evacuations as Bali raises volcano alert

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DENPASAR (Reuters) – Indonesia closed the airport on the tourist island of Bali yesterday and ordered 100,000 residents living near a glowing volcano spewing columns of ash to evacuate immediately, warning that the first major eruption in 54 years could be “imminent”.

The airport was closed for 24 hours from yesterday morning, disrupting 445 flights and some 59,000 passengers, after Mt Agung, which killed hundreds of people in 1963, sent volcanic ash high into the sky, and officials said cancellations could be extended.

“Plumes of smoke are occasionally accompanied by explosive eruptions and the sound of weak blasts that can be heard up to 12km from the peak,” the Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) said in a statement after raising the alert from three to its highest level of four.

“The potential for a larger eruption is imminent,” it said, referring to a visible glow of magma at Mt Agung’s peak overnight, and warning residents to evacuate a danger zone at a radius of 8-10km.

Sutopo, a BNPB spokesman, said there had been no casualties so far and 40,000 people had left the area, but tens of thousands still needed to move.

Video footage shared by the agency showed volcanic mud flows (lahar) on the mountainside. Lahar carrying mud and large boulders can destroy houses, bridges and roads in its path.

“I’m not worried (but) my friends in Russia are a little bit,” said a Russian tourist, who only wanted to be identified as Dmitry, at an observation post in Rendang in Bali’s east.

Indonesia’s Vulcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Centre (PVMBG), which is using drones, satellite imagery and other equipment, said predictions were difficult in the absence of instrumental recordings from the last eruption 54 years ago.

In 1963, an eruption of Agung killed more than 1,000 people and razed several villages by hurling out pyroclastic material, hot ash, lava and lahar.

Recordings now show the northeast area of Agung’s peak has swollen in recent weeks “indicating there is fairly strong pressure toward the surface”, PVMBG said.

It warned that if a similar eruption occurred, it could send rocks bigger than fist-size up to 8km from the summit and volcanic gas to a distance of 10km within three minutes.

Some analysis, however, suggests the threat should not be as great this time because “energy at Mt Agung’s magma chamber is not as big” and the ash column only around a quarter as high so far as the 20km reached in 1963, Sutopo said.

Bali airport, about 60km from the volcano, will be closed for 24 hours, its operator said.

The Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) in Darwin, Australia, said ash was “confirmed on the ground” at the airport as well as ash at FL300 (which refers to flight level at 30,000 feet) in the vicinity of the volcano.

Ash is expected to cover much of Bali, parts of the neighbouring islands of Lombok and Java as winds blow to the southwest, VACC maps indicated.

Ten alternative airports have been prepared for airlines to divert inbound flights, including in neighbouring provinces. The airport operator said it was providing buses to take travellers to ferry ports for alternative travel arrangements.

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