Philippines lowers volcano alert, thousands can return home

MANILA (AFP) – An explosive eruption of the Philippines’ restive Taal volcano no longer appears imminent, authorities said yesterday as they lifted most of a mass evacuation order but warned residents to remain ready to flee.

Warning signs like earthquakes have been steadily waning since Taal burst to life two weeks ago with plumes of ash and lava, forcing over 135,000 people into shelters over fears a massive blast was coming.

The nation’s seismological agency said steadily shrinking ash and gas emissions were signs of “decreased tendency towards hazardous explosive eruption”, leading them to drop the alert by a notch.

The immediate impact of the reduced warning was the lifting of the evacuation order for nearly all the towns that ring the volcano, a tourist attraction that sits in the middle of a lake.

“Residents of all towns under lockdown except Agoncillo and Laurel now have the option to return,” local governor Hermilando Mandanas told a press conference.

“There’s a possibility that the volcano may still erupt and we should still be ready to evacuate in one hour.”

A resident unloads his belongings from a motorbike in front of his house after the Philippine volcanology bureau lowered the alert level from four to three and residents were allowed to return home in the town of Lemery, Batangas province, south of Manila. PHOTO: AFP

No one is known to have died in the eruption, but the ash it unleashed forced the brief closure of the capital’s main international airport, stranding tens of thousands of travellers.

The volcano shot ash 15 kilometres high and spewed lava in the January 12 eruption, which crushed scores of homes and killed livestock as well as crops.

However, seismologists warned the volcano could unleash a much bigger eruption “within hours to days”, posing a deadly risk to anyone in a 14-kilometre radius “danger zone”.

The volcano island is still under evacuation orders, and the thousands who lived there will not be allowed to return, the government has said.

Taal, located just 60 kilometres from the capital Manila, is one of the most active volcanoes in a country where eruptions and earthquakes are a dangerous part of life.

Its last eruption was in 1977, but it has a long history of activity. In 1965, a Taal eruption killed some 200 people.

Despite the risks that the volcano could erupt again, many residents were eager to return home.

“That’s where we were born, including my ancestors… so we are determined to go back,” said Ronald Humarang, a 32-year-old factory worker.

“I am not really afraid (of an explosion) because during the initial eruption, we didn’t evacuate our house immediately,” he told AFP.