Pacific Volcano Spews Ash, Gas

When Vanuatu's Mount Manaro began dumping ash on the cabbages he grows in his shack's garden on the volcano's slopes, Markson Mala knew it was time to head downhill.

He and the other 100 residents of Wainasasa, on the northern flank of the volcano that towers over this remote South Pacific island, boarded trucks and fled to lower ground last week.

"Everything is left behind. We brought only clothing, pots and bush knives for cutting fuel," said Mala, a 54-year-old retired teacher.

He said ash rained down on villagers' gardens, forcing them to wash all their food. Residents live in huts made of palm fronds and sheets of tin and grow their own vegetables.

"This is the second time we've been given a strong warning (by the volcano) to leave our area," he added. The volcano last erupted in 1995; nobody was injured.

Mount Manaro began erupting Nov. 27, and on Thursday it pumped clouds of steam and toxic gases 10,000 feet into the sky over Ambae Island.

The plumes of steam and gases burst from a huge vent in the middle of muddy gray-brown Lake Vui in the crater, which before the eruptions was a picturesque and calm aqua blue.

Pilot Charles Nelson of local charter company Flight Club Vila said the lake "is looking like a huge grubby bowl of hot kava," referring to a murky local drink made of the pounded roots of a local pepper plant mixed with water. Nelson flew close to the erupting volcano Thursday morning.

Skeletal dead trees ring the edge of Manaro's crater, while trees in dense jungle nearby were blackened by ash. Tiny villages in clinging to the volcano's slopes in jungle clearings are deserted.

About 5,000 villagers — half the island's population — have been evacuated from the path of a possible lahar, or mud flow, that vulcanologists fear could burst over the crater lip if the eruption intensifies, sweeping away the flimsy homes in its path.

The displaced villagers are squatting in townships in low-lying areas of the northwest and southeast corners of the small island and four ships are anchored off its shores ready to evacuate villagers if the eruption worsens.

Local transport operator Simean Tali said the ships anchored off the island mean "we should get off (the island) if it goes up."

Two hospitals on the island have been emptied of patients, and teams of doctors and nurses are on standby to fly to Ambae from the capital, Port Vila, if a major eruption occurs, the National Disaster Management Office said.

"Maybe nothing is going to happen, but it is better to be ready than not," Prime Minister Ham Lini told the Daily Post newspaper this week.

New Zealand vulcanologist Brad Scott, who is on Ambae monitoring the eruption, said "it remains a low-level eruption, but it could go either way — worsen or slowly subside."

"At present, it's still in steady state," he told The Associated Press.

While Manaro "is capable of bigger eruptions ... we've seen no evidence at this time it's leading towards a bigger eruption," he added.

In a note to local villagers, the vulcanologists said there was "no evidence" the molten magma was swelling or cracking the ground near the lake — something that could trigger a lahar or catastrophic explosion.

At a local school being used as a makeshift shelter, about 100 displaced villagers applauded as local vulcanologist Charlie Douglas told them the "eruption has not worsened in recent days."

Vanuatu, an archipelago of more than 80 islands studded with live and dormant volcanoes, is home to 200,000 people. The country is 1,400 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia.