Volcanic ash threatens Patagonian tourism, sheep

Thu Jun 16, 2011 6:42pm EDT

* Ash carpets lakeside tourist towns in Patagonia

* Eruption could last several months

By Magali Cervantes

VILLA LA ANGOSTURA, Argentina, June 16 (Reuters) - On the eve of the winter tourist season, the Argentine resort town of Villa La Angostura should be blanketed white. Instead, its log cabins and forests are carpeted in gray volcanic ash.

A volcano across the border in Chile's Puyehue-Cordon Caulle chain erupted on June 4 after being dormant for decades, sending a towering cloud of ash into the air and forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights as far away as Australia.

Air traffic is gradually getting back to normal, but many residents of hard-hit Patagonian towns are without electricity and water, fearing for livestock left without grazing pasture and for the start of the southern hemisphere's winter season.

Mauro Memmo, owner of a tourist bungalow complex, is battling to clear rooftops to prevent them from collapsing under the weight of the heavy grit.

"We'll have to use shovels and wheelbarrows, it's the only way," Memmo said. "I just hope we don't get more ash falling."

Officials in Villa La Angostura, which lies 990 miles (1,600 km) southwest of Buenos Aires, have asked for the area to be declared an emergency zone to free up aid, and the Health Ministry has deployed psychologists to counsel anxious residents.

"When you're faced with a natural disaster, the only option is to bear it and deal with it," Mayor Ricardo Alonso told local television.

Local airports remain shut and hotels have few guests in San Carlos de Bariloche, one of Argentina's most important tourist destinations and a favorite with Brazilian visitors.

"Tourist arrivals have been badly affected, including Brazilians, other Latin Americans and Americans. Tourism's down 80 percent," said Viviana Risso, manager of a Bariloche hotel.

The town sits on the shores of the Nahuel Huapi lake, tinged gray in contrast to its habitual deep blue. "People are saying this could last for a couple of years," Risso said.

The airline havoc of recent days caused losses of between $2.8 million and $3.5 million to state-run Aerolineas Argentinas and Chile's LAN LAN.SN(LFL.N), leading daily La Nacion said, citing an unnamed industry source.

ASH 'FOR A WHILE'

Far from Argentina's famous Pampas cattle-ranching heartland, sheep graze the Patagonian highlands and farmers are battling to get fodder to animals unable to graze pastures buried under up to 1 foot (30 cm) of ash.

Newspapers have shown dead sheep lying in ashen fields, estimating possible losses of some $100 million. The government has sent farming officials to study the impact on livestock, Economy Minister Amado Boudou said.

"We're carrying out a detailed analysis district by district," he told reporters late on Wednesday.

Winds that have been blowing the ash cloud eastward since the eruption almost two weeks ago are forecast to change direction over the coming days, bringing some relief to Villa La Angostura but raising the risk of raining ash over Chile.

Volcanology experts think the volcano could disrupt air travel sporadically for some time. [ID:nN14243691]

"They're calculating we could have three weeks of strong activity and then three months when the volcano's going to remain active," said Marcos Arretche, a civil defense worker in Villa La Angostura. "We're going to have ashes for a while." (Additional reporting by Guido Nejamkis and Helen Popper; Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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