ENSENADA, Chile (AP) — Authorities urged 2,000 people living near the Calbuco volcano to evacuate Friday after potentially devastating mudflows of volcanic debris were detected in a nearby river, the result of two huge eruptions this week that sent ash across large swaths of southern South America.
Chilean officials said the evacuations were precautionary but necessary because flows of volcanic mud, known as lahars, are capable of leveling anything in their path once in motion.
The area had been evacuated after the volcano first erupted Wednesday afternoon, but by Friday many people had begun to return home even as Calbuco continued to billow lesser ejections of smoke and ash. Authorities said the evacuees from the towns of Chamiza, Lago Chapo and Correntoso would stay at shelters in the nearby city of Puerto Montt.
"I'm worried about the lava because we're right below it all," said Jorge Vargas, a farmer from a nearby town who was forced to flee to a shelter with his wife and children, leaving behind their dogs, sheep and cows.
"My children are very scared. They just want to go back home, but we can't because of the (volcanic) gases."
The volcano, which had been dormant four decades, sent a plume of ash about 11 miles (18 kilometers) high during Wednesday's blast. A second, spectacular outburst came early Thursday, with lightning crackling through a dark sky turned reddish orange by the explosion.
The head of the National Mining and Geology Service said Friday that the volcano's eruptive process could last weeks and even months and warned that a third eruption was possible.
"What I can say for certain is that this process is not going to end now," the service's director, Rodrigo Alvarez, said. "It's highly likely that we will have other eruptions, maybe not with the same amount of energy, but with activity that can be worrisome."
The two mighty blasts left Ensenada a ghost town, abandoned by most of its 1,500 residents. Sitting at the foot of the volcano, the town was covered in thick soot and some roofs collapsed under the weight of the ash.
Just about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Calbuco's peak, Ensenada is within the official evacuation zone, and most residents complied. But about 30 refused to leave because of worries about their homes and animals.
Ensenada was eerily empty except for a few residents using masks against the ash and an occasional horse or dog roaming its only street.
The 6,500 foot (2,000-meter) Calbuco, which last erupted in 1972, lies near the cities of Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt, about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) south of Santiago.
Officials worried the clouds of ash could contaminate water, cause respiratory illnesses and ground more airline flights.
LATAM, Sky and other airlines said they had resumed service to and from Puerto Montt after cancelling flights over fears airborne ash could damage jet engines.
But with the coarse dust spreading over nearby countries, Argentine officials grounded flights in Buenos Aires, some 923 miles (1,485 kilometers) from the volcano, after a small amount of ash arrived Friday and clouded the sky.
American Airlines and Air France canceled flights to the Argentine capital's main airport of Ezeiza, while Aerolineas Argentinas grounded flights to some cities in the country's southern Patagonian provinces.
Ash also forced the cancellation of some flights to Uruguay's capital, Montevideo.
Heavier amounts of ash covered towns closer to the volcano. Cars and streets were coated with a thick blanket of ash in Villa La Angostura, Argentina, a town about 56 miles (90 kilometers) northeast of Calbuco.
Weather experts said the haze from the ash would likely clear up quickly unless there was another eruption.
"It doesn't look like the wind will support a very long trail based on the current forecast," said Michael Ventrice, an operations scientist at Weather Service International.
Associated Press writer Luis Hidalgo reported this story in Ensenada and Luis Andres Henao reported from Santiago. AP writers Gonzalo Keogan in Villa La Angostura, Argentina, Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires, Leonardo Haberkorn in Montevideo, Uruguay, and Eva Vergara and Mauricio Cuevas in Santiago contributed to this report.
Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao