Southern Chile's Calbuco volcano erupted on Wednesday for the first time in nearly half a century, spewing a giant funnel of ash high into the sky and prompting authorities to declare a state of emergency. Officials ordered an evacuation for a 20-kilometer radius around the volcano and the Interior ministry rushed in the army to temporarily take control of the province of Llanquihue and the town of Puerto Octay.
People are very, very frightened, said Gervoy Paredes, the mayor of the largest city in the area, Puerto Montt, which was blanketed in a cloud of ash.
The situation is pretty complicated, he added, saying reports indicated the Blanco river was flooding because of ice melt triggered by the eruption.
Airlines cancelled flights as a towering, mushroom-shaped ash cloud rose from Calbuco's snowy peak. Schools also suspended classes for the region.
Television images showed large traffic jams and long lines at gas stations in Puerto Montt, where a red alert was declared, along with nearby Puerto Varas.
I would like to call on the population to remain calm and stay informed, said Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo. The police have given orders and begun to evacuate.
The initial evacuation involved about 270 families, but could be expanded, officials said. Police called on residents to keep roads as clear as possible to aid the evacuation.
Calbuco had been inactive for 43 years.
It was a rather explosive eruption, said Gabriel Orozco, a volcanologist at the National Geology and Mines Service.
He said the 10-kilometer-high ash cloud risked collapsing, and warned: River beds are very dangerous at the moment because of the risk of ice and snow melting and causing floods.
The 2,000-meter volcano is located in the Los Lagos region, some 1,400 kilometers south of the capital Santiago.
It is the second volcano in southern Chile to have a substantial eruption since March 3, when the Villarrica volcano emitted a brief but fiery burst of ash and lava. That eruption caused authorities to evacuate more than 3,500 people.
No lava was seen in the latest eruption, but the ash cloud, which could be seen from 20 kilometers away, loomed over the crater, turning hues of pink and yellow as the sun set over the area. Chile has about 90 active volcanoes, of which Calbuco is considered one of the most dangerous.