Flights disrupted as Chile volcano spews more ash

Miguel Sanchez
1 / 5

Local residents walk along a street covered with ashes from the Calbuco volcano at La Ensenada, southern Chile, on April 25, 2015

Local residents walk along a street covered with ashes from the Calbuco volcano at La Ensenada, southern Chile, on April 25, 2015 (AFP Photo/Martin Bernetti)

Puerto Varas (Chile) (AFP) - Ash from Chile's spewing Calbuco volcano threatened Saturday to spell travel misery in the region and beyond after it triggered the cancellation of domestic and international flights in several cities.

A sleeping giant for more than 50 years, the volcano sprang to life in spectacular bursts of ash and lava Wednesday and Thursday, forcing 6,500 people living nearby to evacuate and blanketed southern Chile in suffocating volcanic debris.

It coughed out more fire and ash Saturday, with an ash cloud drifting eastward over Patagonia and Argentina, reaching Buenos Aires 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) away, where some airlines canceled flights to and from the United States and Europe.

In the Chilean capital Santiago, domestic flights operated normally but some international flights were scrubbed.

A handful of flights were scrapped at Montevideo's Carrasco International Airport, and authorities urged people to use face masks to avoid inhaling ash particles.

"The volcano remains unstable and eruptions, principally ash, will continue for now," Chile's National Geology and Mining Service said in its latest report.

Experts have cautioned that a third eruption could still follow.

A state of emergency has been in place since Wednesday and authorities emptied a 20-kilometer radius around Calbuco, which is located in Los Lagos, a region popular with tourists for its scenic mountain landscapes dotted with volcanoes and lakes with black-sand beaches.

More people were ordered out from towns near Calbuco that were deemed at risk of flooding from snow and ice melting high in the mountains due to the volcano's heat. Authorities said they planned to evacuate about 4,000 sheep and cattle.

"I'm afraid and still thinking about leaving, but over the long term, I would still return to my land," said Carolina Bayern, who took refuge in a school with other evacuees.

Raul Rangel, who also was staying at the school, said he was no longer afraid of the volcano after it took out his home.

"I respect it," he added. "My house collapsed, and everything is destroyed, and I feel such great sadness."

- Blanketed in ash -

Southern Chile's verdant landscape has turned gray as ash has settled over vast expanses of farm land, especially in the immediate disaster zone around the volcano.

"There are fields that will be unusable for a long time," Agriculture Minister Carlos Furche told Radio Cooperativa.

The government said it is weighing whether to provide emergency payments to the hardest hit farmers, who fear they face financial ruin.

On the other side of the expanding security perimeter, the evacuation area was turned into a scattering of ghost towns blanketed with ash up to one meter (three feet) thick, an AFP photographer said.

In La Ensenada, a town of 1,500 people that was the first to be evacuated, workers used heavy trucks to plow the roads clear as a handful of residents ignored the evacuation order to shovel the ash and debris off their rooftops.

The 2,000-meter volcano last erupted in 1961 and showed light activity in 1972, according to official data. There have been no known fatalities from this week's eruptions.

It is the second volcano to erupt in Chile since March 3, when the Villarrica volcano emitted a brief but fiery burst of ash and lava.

Chile has about 90 active volcanoes.

The long, thin country has been hit by a series of natural disasters in recent months, from flooding in its usually arid north, home to the world's driest desert, to wildfires in its drought-hit southern forests.