Chile’s Villarrica Mountain Erupts, Causing Emergency Response

Authorities issued a red alert and ordered mass evacuations after one of Chile’s most active volcanoes erupted on Tuesday.

The 2,847-meter (9,000 foot) Villarrica volcano reportedly began to spew heavy smoke into the air around 3am local time, prompting the National Emergency Office to issue a red alert and move over 4,000 Chileans and visiting tourists out of the path of the lava flows.

Pucon sits in the shadow of the volcano, approximately 670 kilometers (400 miles) south of Santiago. The small city, which has a population of about 22,000, occupies Chile’s central valley and is no stranger to volcanic eruptions. But visitors and even the locals are astounded by this eruption, sources confirmed.

“It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” 29-year-old Australian tourist, Travis Armstrong, said afterwards in a phone interview. “I’ve never seen a volcano erupt and it was spewing lava and ash hundreds of meters into the air. Lightning was striking down at the volcano from the ash cloud that formed from the eruption”. Like the dozens of other tourists being evacuated, Armstrong came for Villarrica’s more peaceful outdoor activities, and the eruption is reportedly still a shock to sightseers and small business owners despite the Chilean government’s orange alert due to increased volcanic activity Monday.

“We’re still a bit nervous because we don’t know what’s happening,” said Jose Manuel Reyes, 37. “There was nervousness, but we haven’t seen any panic.” Reyes is manager of the La Bicicleta hostel in downtown Pucon, where visitors from a variety of countries stay for kayaking, backpacking, horse riding and hiking trips. Patrons of La Bicicleta reportedly watched the early-morning eruption from the hostel terrace.

Villarrica’s last eruption occurred in 1984. Of more than 2,000 volcanoes in the Chilean stretch of the Andes cordillera, more than 90 of them are still active. Villarrica is among the country’s most dangerous areas according to national cautionary bulletins.

The volcano’s glacier cap covers about 40 square kilometers (15 square miles) of its peak and snow stays year-round from 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) on up. Villarrica has periodic eruptions every 10-15 years, and according to Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program, the volcano has been overdue for an eruption.

Authorities are on the lookout for repeat incidents of floods and mudslides, as the streams of lava melt snow and swell the local rivers. Interior and Security Minister, Rodrigo Penailillo, warned that the eruption could cause the water levels of several nearby rivers to rise. The Tolten, Llancahue, Lincura and Voipir rivers have been monitored for flood and mudslide threats to at least four neighboring communities, authorities confirmed.

In a statement on Tuesday, President Michelle Bachelet announced that she would travel to areas near the volcano to check on safety preparations. The President arrived in Pucon to a warm reception and has asked residents to remain calm. Multiple sources confirmed that the volcano has calmed to its earlier activity in the following hours.