Emergency evacuation as volcano spews lava
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Local television reported loud groaning sounds emanating from the 3,280-foot (1,000-meter) volcano, which had been dormant for thousands of years.
"The situation has changed suddenly," national emergency official Rodrigo Rojas said in an interview.
"Today the volcano is erupting with pyroplastic material on a different scale," he added. "We ... have ordered the immediate precautionary evacuation of all civilians, military and press in Chaiten."
Authorities have already evacuated around 4,200 people -- nearly the whole population -- from Chaiten, which is six miles (10 km) from the volcano. Evacuation is complicated by the fact southern Chile is fragmented by fjords and access is often difficult.
"We hope the evacuation happens in an optimum way," said President Michelle Bachelet, who visited the area on Monday. "I hope this evolves in the least harmful way possible."
DENSE CLOUD OF ASH
Luis Lara, a government geologist, said he did not expect a catastrophic collapse of the volcano, but that a cloud of dense, very hot material could coat the surrounding area.
"This produces a more complicated scenario," Lara said. "A dense cloud of pyroplastic material could move down its slopes, and that causes much more damage (than a spray of lava)."
"The entire volcano will not (collapse), but the eruptive column could, and that is sufficient material to be displaced down its sides and into areas nearby," he added. "Lava flow would not reach Chaiten, but hot fragments, ash and gas could."
Authorities are also evacuating a second town, Futaleufu, which has also been coated with ash. The area is some distance from Chile's vital mining industry farther north.
Some of Futaleufu's 1,000 or so residents had already crossed into neighboring Argentina, where some areas have also been showered with ash and where authorities last week closed schools and treated some for breathing problems.
The ash is more than 6 inches (15 cm) thick in some places, contaminating water supplies and coating houses, vehicles and trees and contaminating water supplies, and authorities are moving thousands of head of cattle from the area.
Chile has the world's second most active string of volcanoes behind Indonesia.