Philippines Fear Volcanic Explosions After Temporary Calm

Villagers took advantage of a lull to check on their mountainside homes today, despite warnings that the volcano looming over the central Philippines could erupt again at any moment.

After exploding Sunday in fountains of bright red lava, the Mayon volcano calmed temporarily.

But scientists warned of more pyroclastic flows — streams of low-lying ash, gas and rock fragments that can flow at 60 mph and incinerate everything in their path. Five miles away, explosions could be heard as the crater burned bright red on a cloudless day.

Large numbers of the 35,000 evacuees returned to their homes today despite the warnings, said Jason Aragon, officer in charge of the evacuation of 18 area villages in the area 200 miles southeast of Manila.

Thirteen military trucks were dispatched to keep them away. Most of the villagers who returned were men picking up more possessions, but some were going into off-limit areas to gather firewood.

State of Calamity Declared

Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said a soldier was killed during a 10-minute firefight Sunday with suspected leftist rebels as troops evacuated two neighborhoods in the town of Daraga. One rebel was wounded, and a backpack containing leftist propaganda material was found afterward.

"While we admit that soldiers are vulnerable, I hope no one would take advantage of the situation," Maj. Gen. Narciso Abaya said.

An elderly woman also suffered a fatal heart attack while being evacuated.

The 11 evacuation centers in five towns and three cities were reporting food and water shortages.

The provincial government declared a state of calamity in affected areas, allowing it to tap a special fund for emergencies, and Reyes provided a check for $100,000 from the central government.

Airports Shut Down

Airports were closed today due to lack of visibility and danger of flying ash and rocks. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo planned to visit Monday but sent Reyes and two other Cabinet ministers instead.

One massive explosion from the Mayon volcano on Sunday puffed ash more than nine miles high, officials said. Visibility dropped to near zero within hours as the enormous mushroom cloud began to settle, turning the lush green landscape gray.

Raymundo Punongbayan, director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, said the eruption could last one to two weeks and spew up to 2.63 billion cubic feet of lava. As many as 60,000 people could be forced to evacuate, he said.

The 8,118-foot Mayon, a well-known tourist attraction because of its near-perfect conical shape, has erupted at least 47 times since 1616. An ash mudflow buried a town and killed 1,200 people in the worst known eruption in 1814. The last, in February 2000, forced some 68,000 people from their homes.

The Philippines is in the Pacific "Ring of Fire," where earthquakes and volcanic activity are common.