(AFP) – May 7, 2008
CHAITEN, Chile (AFP) — A thick cloud of ash from the erupting Chaiten volcano in southern Chile spread across a swathe of South America Wednesday, prompting fears of health crisis for the people caught in its wake.
The enormous slow-moving plume was expected to soon reach Buenos Aires, where about eight million people live in the Argentine capital and its surroundings, spreading airborne ash particles which health officials warned could be highly dangerous to inhale.
Thousands of Chileans have already fled their homes after the volcano, located 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) south of Santiago near Chile's border with Argentina, erupted violently Tuesday, spewing ash and lava over its surroundings.
"Everything depends on which way the wind blows in the next few hours," said a spokesman for Argentina's meteorological service.
He said forecasters were fairly certain that the skies of more Argentine towns would be darkened by the volcano's after-effects, adding: "We don't see any prospect of a change in the weather."
Chile's National Emergency Office said the area around a 30-kilometer radius of the volcano had been completely evacuated.
The 4,000 residents of Chaiten, the town nearest to the volcano whose streets were covered by a thick layer of ash, were evacuated Tuesday. Only a handful of emergency personnel and news reporters remained.
Many of the town's businesses relocated to the city of Puerto Montt, some 200 kilometers to the south, and residents also took shelter there.
"I didn't want to leave, but there was too much noise, and ash fell all day long," said Rosa Mayorga, 62.
Another 1,000 people were forced to relocate from the town of Futaleufu, while officials in neighboring areas distributed face masks and drinking water.
The dense, 30-kilometer (19-mile) high plume of volcanic ash took a northeasterly turn overnight to Wednesday after moving for days in a southeasterly direction, the head of the National Emergency Office, Rodrigo Rojas, told AFP.
Ash from the volcano is expected to blanket the Chilean town of Palena and the Argentine ski resort Bariloche northeast of Chaiten, Rojas said.
Otherwise "there have been no reports of significant changes in seismic activity or emission of ash" since the volcano began to erupt violently on Tuesday, Rojas said.
Three leading airlines -- Aerolinas Argentinas, Austral and Chile's LAN -- canceled flights across the region, including flights to the Atlantic port cities of Bahia Blanca, 900 kilometers northeast of the volcano, and Comodoro Rivadavia, located 575 kilometers southeast.
"The airports are open but the airlines canceled flights because the volcanic ash gets in the airplane turbines and could cause material damage," said an aviation official at the Jorge Newbery airport north of Buenos Aires.
The official said it was likely that flights would remain grounded Thursday given the weather forecast.
Officials in the Argentine province of Chubut, east of the eruption, said some 160 schools that had been closed since Friday due to the volcanic ash had now reopened.
A Chilean vulcanologist warned Tuesday that the eruption was only in the early stages, and that an explosive eruption was possible.
"There could be a major explosion that could collapse the volcano's cone," said Luis Lara of the National Geologic and Mining Service.
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