Taal Volcano spews ash and smoke during an eruption as seen from Cavite province, south of Manila, Philippines on Sunday. Jan. 12, 2020. (Jogs Danao/AP Photo)

Tiny volcano erupts near Manila, causing villagers to flee

January 12, 2020 - 6:46 am

TAGAYTAY, Philippines (AP) — A tiny volcano near the Philippine capital that draws many tourists for its picturesque setting in a lake belched steam, ash and rocks in a huge plume Sunday, prompting thousands of residents to flee and officials to temporarily suspend flights.

The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology said Taal Volcano in Batangas province south of Manila blasted steam and ash up to 1 kilometer (about half a mile) into the sky in a dramatic escalation of its growing restiveness, which began last year.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage but authorities scrambled to evacuate more than 6,000 villagers from an island in the middle of a lake, where the volcano lies, officials said.

“We have asked people in high-risk areas, including the volcano island, to evacuate now ahead of a possible hazardous eruption,” Renato Solidum, who heads the institute, said by phone.

Renelyn Bautista, a 38-year-old housewife from Batangas province’s Laurel town, said she immediately fled from her home with her two children, including a 4-month-old baby, after Taal erupted and the ground shook mildly twice.

“We hurriedly evacuated when the air turned muddy because of the ashfall and it started to smell like gunpowder,” Bautista said.

Dozens of international and domestic flights were put on hold for at least four hours Sunday night at Manila’s international airport “due to volcanic ash in the vicinity of the airport” and nearby air routes, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines said.

Taal lies more than 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of Manila.

The volcanology institute raised the danger level around Taal two notches on Sunday to level 3, indicating “magmatic intrusion that is likely driving the current activity.” Level 5, the highest, indicates an ongoing eruption.

The institute reminded the public that the small island where the volcano lies is a “permanent danger zone,” although fishing villages have existed there for years. It asked nearby coastal communities “to take precautionary measures and be vigilant of possible lake water disturbances related to the ongoing unrest.”

Villagers in several villages and towns around the lake were also asked by officials to evacuate to safer areas.

Heavy to light ashfall was reported in towns and cities several kilometers (miles) from the volcano, and officials advised residents to stay indoors and don masks. Motorists were hampered by poor visibility, which was worsened by rainy weather.

Hotels, shopping malls and restaurants line an upland road along a ridge overlooking the lake and the volcano in Tagaytay city, a key tourism area that could be affected by a major eruption.

Authorities recorded a swarm of earthquakes, some of them felt with rumbling sounds, and a slight inflation of portions of the volcano ahead of Sunday’s steam-driven explosion, officials said.

Officials suspended classes on Monday in Batangas, where power outages were reported, and nearby Cavite province to avoid health problems from the ashfall.

One of the world's smallest volcanoes, Taal is among two dozen active volcanoes in the Philippines, which lies along the so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a seismically active region that is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

About 20 typhoons and storms each year also lash the Philippines, which lies between the Pacific and the South China Sea, making it one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries.

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Gomez reported from Manila. Associated Press videojournalist Bogie Calupitan contributed to this report.

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