One of Chile’s most active volcanoes erupted early Tuesday, spewing heavy smoke into the air as lava surged down its slopes, prompting authorities to evacuate thousands of people.
The 9,000-foot Villarrica volcano, in Chile’s southern Lake District, erupted around 3 a.m. local time, according to the National Emergency Office, which issued a red alert and ordered evacuations. By Tuesday afternoon authorities had evacuated 3,385 people, mostly from the picturesque tourist hub of Pucón, according to local reports. Five local grade schools were being used to temporarily house the evacuated.
Local media showed images of the volcano bursting at the top, glowing in the dark amid heavy smoke and rivers of lava. Authorities worried that mudslides caused by melting snow could endanger nearby communities.
"It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen," 29-year-old Australian tourist Travis Armstrong said in a telephone interview from Pucón. "I've never seen a volcano erupt and it was spewing lava and ash hundreds of meters into the air. Lightning was striking down at the volcano from the ash cloud that formed from the eruption."
Interior and Security Minister Rodrigo Penailillo warned that the eruption was causing numerous rivers in the area to rise as snow along the sides of the volcano began melting. Villarrica is topped by a glacier cap covering some 15 square miles, and snow from about 5,000 feet up.
Authorities were keeping an eye on four nearby communities that could be endangered by mudslides as the snow melts. Officials were also monitoring nearly 200 people who were cut off from main roads when two bridges were destroyed by rising waters from nearby rivers.
Chile has more than 2,000 volcanoes in the Andes cordillera and about 90 of them remain active. Villarrica is considered among the country's most dangerous. It last erupted in 1984 and 2000.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press