Indonesian authorities ordered a mass evacuation of people on Monday from an expanded danger zone around an erupting volcano on Bali that has forced the island’s international airport to close, stranding tens of thousands of travellers.
Mount Agung has been hurling clouds of white and dark grey ash about 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) into the atmosphere since the weekend and lava is welling up in the crater, sometimes reflected as a reddish-yellow glow in the ash plumes. Its explosions can be heard about 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) away.
Videos released by the National Disaster Mitigation Agency showed a mudflow of volcanic debris and water known as a lahar moving down the volcano’s slopes. It said lahars could increase because it’s rainy season and warned people to stay away from rivers. The agency raised the volcano’s alert to the highest level early Monday and expanded the danger zone to 10 kilometres (6 miles) in places from the previous 7.5 kilometres. It said that a larger eruption is possible.
Spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told a news conference in Jakarta that the extension of the danger zone affects 22 villages and about 90,000 to 100,000 people. He said about 40,000 people have evacuated but others have not left because they feel safe or don’t want to abandon their livestock.
“Authorities will comb the area to persuade them,” he said. “If needed we will forcibly evacuate them.” About 25,000 people were already living in evacuation centres after an increase in tremors from the mountain in September sparked an evacuation.
Lava rising in the crater “will certainly spill over to the slopes,” Sutopo said.
The volcano’s last major eruption in 1963 killed about 1,100 people. Villager Putu Sulasmi said she fled with her husband and other family members to a sports hall that’s serving as an evacuation centre.
“We came here on motorcycles. We had to evacuate because our house is just 3 miles from the mountain. We were so scared with the thundering sound and red light,” she said. The family had stayed at the same sports centre in September and October when the volcano’s alert was at the highest level for several weeks but didn’t erupt. They had returned to their village about a week ago.
“If it has to erupt let it erupt now rather than leaving us in uncertainty. I’ll just accept it if our house is destroyed,” she said.
Bali’s airport was closed early Monday after ash, which can pose a deadly threat to aircraft, reached its airspace. Flight information boards showed rows of cancellations as tourists arrived at the busy airport expecting to catch flights home. Airport spokesman Air Ahsanurrohim said 445 flights were cancelled, stranding about 59,000 travellers. The closure is in effect until Tuesday morning though officials said the situation will be reviewed every six hours.
Bali is Indonesia’s top tourist destination, with its gentle Hindu culture, surf beaches and lush green interior attracting about 5 million visitors a year. Some flights to and from Bali were cancelled on Saturday and Sunday but most had continued to operate normally as the towering ash clouds were moving east toward the neighbouring island of Lombok.
“We now have to find a hotel and spend more of our money that they’re not going to cover us for when we get home, unfortunately,” said Canadian tourist Brandon Olsen who was stranded at Bali’s airport with his girlfriend.
Indonesia’s Directorate General of Land Transportation said 100 buses were being deployed to Bali’s international airport and to ferry terminals to help travellers stranded by the eruption of Mount Agung. The agency’s chief, Budi, said major ferry crossing points have been advised to prepare for a surge in passengers and vehicles. Stranded tourists could leave Bali by taking a ferry to neighbouring Java and then travel by land to the nearest airports.
Indonesia’s tourism ministry said member hotels of the Indonesia Hotel and Restaurant Association will provide a night’s free accommodation to people affected by the airport closure. Ash has settled on villages and resorts around the volcano and soldiers and police distributed masks on the weekend.
In Karangasem district that surrounds the volcano, tourists stopped to watch the towering plumes of ash as children made their way to school. Indonesia sits on the “Pacific Ring of Fire” and has more than 120 active volcanoes.
Mount Agung’s alert status was raised to the highest level in September following a dramatic increase in tremors from the mountain, which prompted more than 140,000 people to leave the area. The alert was lowered on October 29 after a decrease in activity but about 25,000 people remained in evacuation centres.