CASTRO, Chile (Reuters) - Chilean authorities were evacuating the last of thousands of residents from the vicinity of a volcano in southern Chile on Saturday, as it continued to spew fine ash for a second day after a surprise eruption.
More than 4,000 people have been evacuated from the Patagonian town of Chaiten and its surroundings since Friday, many by boat to the town of Castro on the island of Chiloe, slightly further north and Puerto Montt on the mainland.
Some are now staying in guesthouses, while schools have been turned into makeshift shelters packed with stores of bottled water after the ash contaminated ground water.
Technicians were dispatched to restore phone lines in and around Chaiten and ensure electricity supplies, while experts took water samples.
The National Emergency Office, ONEMI, said volcanic activity continued, with fine ash falling in the area. It said visibility remained poor, with ash clouding the skies, and the smell of sulfur hung heavy in the air in some places.
“The panorama here is pretty complicated,” Interior Minister Edmundo Perez Yoma said during a visit to the area. “We have completed the first phase of the operation, which was the evacuation of practically all of the local population.”
“We don’t know if this is a situation that will last days, or weeks or even more,” he added.
Southern Chile is fragmented into hundreds of small islands and fjords. Some residents had never ventured from tiny Chaiten itself until the volcano forced them.
“I am amazed how big the continent is,” said Claudia, an elderly resident of Chaiten, on arriving by boat at the southern island of Chiloe, mistaking it for mainland Chile. “I have never left Chaiten before.”
She clasped a plastic bag containing a few basic items she had managed to salvage before being evacuated.
Before they were ferried to safety, some residents in the area wore white surgical facemasks to avoid inhaling the ash — which in some areas lay 6 inches deep.
Snow-capped Chaiten volcano, which is around 3,280 feet
high and lies around 6 miles from the town of the same name, erupted on Friday, triggering earth tremors and spewing a cloud of ash 2 miles into the air.
Ash has caked the picturesque Patagonian town, which lies 760 miles south of the capital Santiago.
Schools were closed in the area on Friday, and hospitals treated people for irritated eyes and breathing difficulties.
Across the nearby border in Argentina, authorities in Chubut province on Friday asked residents to avoid rubbing their eyes and to wear glasses and long sleeves to avoid ash making contact with skin.
Chile’s 2,000 volcanoes include two of Latin America’s most active — Villarica and Llaima. Scientists say some 500 are potentially active. Chile has the world’s second most active string of volcanoes behind Indonesia.
Llaima, about 435 miles south of Santiago, erupted on New Year’s Day, spewing ash and molten lava and forcing dozens of tourists and staff to evacuate a wilderness park.
It also belched ash in February and lava crept down its slopes.
With reporting by Manuel Farias; writing by Simon Gardner; editing by Todd Eastham