MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia(AFP) – Thousands of villagers have fled one of Indonesia’s most dangerous volcanoes as its crater spewed blazing lava and spat out toxic heat clouds — but many also ignored orders to evacuate.
Officials in one district alone relocated more than 5,000 people from villages near the crater to dozens of temporary shelters after Mount Merapi sent two massive heat clouds swirling two kilometers (1.2 miles) down its slopes.
As of 1000 GMT Sunday, officials in Magelang district southwest of Merapi had taken 4,072 residents from 11 villages deemed to be at immediate risk of the heat clouds and moved them into shelters, said Edi Susanto, head of the district evacuation team.
“We have not yet encountered any problems and so far things are moving quite well,” he told AFP.
Nobody panicked, Susanto said, adding that efforts continued because “there are a lot of residents that need to be evacuated.”
All the villages evacuated so far were “located very near Merapi and we fear that the head clouds” could reach them, He said.
“There are a lot of people who need to be evacuated, including babies, pregnant women and elderly. It’s not easy to perform an evacuation but this is something that we continue doing,” he said.
In Sleman district officials had so far transported 5,093 people from seven villages to shelters, said Ani, of the district evacuation agency.
No immediate figure was available for the number of residents still to be moved. But Vice President Yusuf Kalla said Thursday around 34,000 people living below Merapi’s crater should be evacuated.
Susanto said that about 17,000 people from 21 villages across Magelang could be in danger from lava flows, but said only 11 of the villages needed immediate evacuation.
In the western district of Klaten, some 2,800 residents had also been evacuated by late Sunday, said Sukamto, an official with the district’s evacuation agency.
Three out of the five districts around the slopes of Merapi — which means Mountain of Fire — are considered to be in the immediate danger zone.
Merapi has been spewing super-hot volcanic ash and has fired thick white smoke hundreds of metres into the air.
The volcanology office in the main town of Yogyakarta said Merapi had released 40 heat clouds by early Sunday.
The 2,914-meter (9,560-foot) volcano in Central Java has become steadily more active over the last month.
But despite mandatory evacuation orders many residents were reluctant to leave.
Traditional beliefs hold that Merapi will only erupt after certain omens, some of which appear in dreams have come to pass — leaving many of the more superstitious residents reluctant to leave until they appear.
Some villagers are also worried about their cattle and crops being stolen.
Mariah, a woman in her 30s, moved to a shelter but left her husband on the mountainside. “Who else is there to take care of the cows? And besides, men can run much faster than us women,” she said.
She said authorities had told them to move their cows down to safer areas but had not provided transport. “Where do we put our cows? Nobody can tell us where to take our cows,” she said.
A new lava dome has been rapidly forming at the peak of Mount Merapi, growing 75 metres (247 feet) in two weeks.
Scientists have said that its collapse will release lava as well as deadly clouds of volcanic gases, ash, and dust reaching temperatures up to 500 degrees Celsius (930 degrees Fahrenheit).
Merapi’s deadliest eruption was in 1930 when 1,369 people were killed.
Heat clouds also killed 66 people when it last erupted in 1994.
Indonesia sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” noted for its volcanic and seismic activity. The country has more than 100 active volcanoes — the highest concentration in the world.