CASTRO, Chile (Reuters) - Chile prepared to evacuate another town in its remote Patagonian south on Monday, as ash spewed from a snowcapped volcano for a fourth day after its first eruption in thousands of years.
President Michelle Bachelet made her way to the small town of Futaleufu, the second town to be evacuated, as residents packed what belongings they could carry.
Futaleufu lies around 810 miles south of the capital Santiago and 100 miles southeast of the erupting Chaiten volcano, which is some distance from Chile’s vital mining industry further north.
On Friday, Chaiten volcano erupted, forming a mushroom cloud as ash shot high into the sky. It continued to belch hot gas and ash on Monday, sending sooty emissions as far as neighboring Argentina.
Chilean authorities were caught off-guard by the eruption of the 3,280-foot (1,000-meter) volcano long considered inactive. No lava flow has been detected, but experts have not ruled out the possibility of a more violent eruption.
“We are not sure what is going to happen with the volcano,” Bachelet told reporters in the southern town of Puerto Montt, where many of the 4,200 people evacuated on from the town of Chaiten are staying.
“We don’t know if it will continue to spew ash, we don’t know if lava will appear, and for that reason, we have taken precautionary measures, which is early evacuation,” she added.
The National Emergency Office said a few of Futaleufu’s 1,000 or so residents had crossed into neighboring Argentina, where some areas have also been showered with ash and where authorities last week closed schools and treated some for breathing problems.
SIX-INCH DEEP ASH
Bachelet urged those in the affected area to protect their eyes and wear masks to avoid inhaling the ash.
The ash is more than 6 inches thick in some places, coating houses, vehicles, trees and water supplies.
It has also covered animal fodder, and Bachelet said around 25,000 head of cattle in the area were in serious danger of dying. The navy shipped in some fresh feed and planned to remove some animals on the return leg.
An elderly woman died from a heart attack as she was evacuated from Chaiten on Sunday, local media reported.
There is no record of the volcano erupting in the last 2,000 years, according to Sernageomin, a government mining and geology agency.
Luis Lara, a geologist at the agency who specializes in volcanoes, said the eruption was a reasonably major one and could get worse.
Worst-case scenarios included a possible collapse of the volcano, which could trigger lava flows, or it could blow off the peak of its dome, he said.
Safe from the ash, evacuated residents of Chaiten now face other immediate problems.
“I left my house with just two changes of clothes,” said 22-year-old Daniela Munoz, a street-sweeper from Chaiten who along with her two young children, her father and sister are now staying with her uncle in Castro on the island of Chiloe.
“We need more clothes, food and work,” she added. “We don’t know how long we will have to stay away from Chaiten. We need work because the money we have won’t last long.”
Southern Chile is fragmented into hundreds of small islands and fjords. Some residents had never ventured from Chaiten until the volcano six miles away forced them to go.
Chile has the world’s second most active string of volcanoes behind Indonesia.
With reporting by Simon Gardner, Manuel Farias, Antonio de la Jara and Monica Vargas; editing by Philip Barbara