A long-simmering volcano near one of Guatemala’s most famous tourist attractions has erupted, spewing rivers of lava down its side and plumes of ash into the air to mandate the evacuation of more than 33,000 people in the area.
Volcan del Fuego, which is located about six miles southwest from the tourist city of Antigua and just under 25 from the capital of Guatemala City, has long ranked as among Central America’s most active volcanoes.
The 12,346-foot-high volcano resumed activity on Thursday, bellowing out lava and ash in an explosion expected to last for at least another 12 hours.
“A paroxysm of an eruption is taking place, a great volcanic eruption, with strong explosions and columns of ash,” Gustavo Chicna, a volcanologist with the National Institute of Seismology, Vulcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology, told the Associated Press.
The ash was blowing south-southeast, but authorities said the tourist center of the country was not currently in danger.
Nevertheless, hundreds of cars, trucks and buses blanketed with charcoal grey cash sped away from the volcano along the two-lane paved highway toward Guatemala City. Dozens of people crammed into the backs of trucks. Thick clouds of ash reduced visibility to less than 10 feet in the area of sugarcane fields surrounding the volcano. The elderly, women and children filled old school buses and ambulances that carried them from the area.
The agency said lava rolled nearly 2,000 feet down slopes billowing with ash around the volcano, whose name translates as “Volcano of Fire.”
Chicna said cinders spewing from the volcano were settling a half-inch thick in some places.
Extremely hot gases were also rolling down the sides of the volcano, which was almost entirely wreathed in ash and smoke. The emergency agency warned that flights through the area could be affected.
Chicna said ash was landing as far as 50 miles south of the volcano.
By Thursday evening, the ash plume had decreased to a little more than a mile high, partly due to rain, which diminished the potential risk to aviation, said Jorge Giron, a government volcanologist. He warned of ash still falling and advised residents near the volcano but outside evacuation zones to clean their water systems before using them, and not leave their homes because of potential health effects from the ash.
He said a red alert would be in effect until 4 a.m. local time.
Teresa Marroquin, disaster coordinator for the Guatemalan Red Cross, said the organization had set up 10 emergency shelters and was sending hygiene kits and water.
Many of those living around the volcano are indigenous Kakchikeles people who live in relatively poor and isolated communities. Authorities said they expected to encounter difficulties in evacuating all the affected people from the area.
Officials in the Mexican state of Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala, said they were monitoring the situation in case winds drove ash toward Mexico.