Bali volcano evacuees outside danger zone told to go home, rescuers race to save animals in red zone

A search and rescue team help farmers load their cattle into a truck that was blocking the road near Mount Agung, near Kubu, on the resort island of Bali, Indonesia, on Sept 27, 2017.
A search and rescue team help farmers load their cattle into a truck that was blocking the road near Mount Agung, near Kubu, on the resort island of Bali, Indonesia, on Sept 27, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

KARANGASEM, INDONESIA (AFP) - More than 144,000 people have fled from a rumbling volcano on popular tourist island Bali, but officials on Saturday (Sept 30) urged evacuees who live outside the immediate danger zone to return home.

Volunteers are meanwhile risking their lives, making perilous trips into the red zone to relocate tens of thousands of animals left at the mercy of the rumbling volcano.

Mount Agung, 75km from the tourist hub of Kuta, has been shaking since August, causing fears it could erupt for the first time since 1963 and triggering the highest possible alert level eight days ago.

But officials say the number of evacuees has grown too high, and only people who live within 9km of the crater should remain in temporary shelters or with friends and relatives further afield.

"There is no reason for people who live in the safe zone to evacuate. They need to go back to their village because they will become a burden," Bali's governor I Made Mangku Pastika said.

Some 70,000 people live within the 9-km radius affected by Mount Agung's volcanic activity, meaning more than half of the evacuees can return to their houses, the government said.

"Only people from 27 villages must evacuate. The rest can go home. They can either go home independently or with the help of the government," said national disaster mitigation agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.

The activity of Mount Agung remains high but stable, said the Indonesian Centre for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation. There were fewer than 200 tremors between midnight and 6am on Saturday - slightly below the level of seismic activity observed on Wednesday and Thursday, it said.

"There are no visual signs yet that Mount Agung will erupt soon. So don't be afraid to come to Bali, it's still safe. And if the mountain erupts, it's still safe as long as people stay out of the dangerous zone," Nugroho said.

Vio Verandhini, from Jakarta Animal Aid Network, said her organisation and several others have formed a 12-person emergency response unit that has been making dangerous trips into the red zone, which extends between 9 km and 12 km from the mountain's summit.

The animals - including wild monkeys as well as dogs and farm animals such as pigs, chickens and cows - are relocated to shelters where they are fed and cared for and the owners are encouraged to visit as often as possible to ensure their upkeep.

The slopes of Mount Agung are a hub for cattle farming in the region, providing an important source of income for local communities.

Around 10,000 cows have been shifted so far in an evacuation aided by the government, Indonesia's disaster mitigation agency said, but there are 20,000 more to relocate.

The coordinator of a government livestock rescue team, Natakusuma, who goes by one name, said some farmers were sleeping at evacuation centres, but returning to tend to their cattle during the day.

"Emotionally, it's really hard for the farmers to part with their cattle, not only for economic reasons but also because they care so much about the animals," he said. "Some insisted staying in their village with their livestock even though their safety in is danger."

Natakusuma said the government was trying to persuade farmers not to return by assuring them their livestock would be safe at special shelters.

Running Out Of Space

Some forced to flee have carried their animals with them, fearful they will die or get stolen. At a sports centre packed with evacuees in Klungkung district, Ketut Pageh cradled one of the two roosters he saved before leaving home.

"I feel sorry for them, I took them so they won't starve because there's no one at home to feed them," the 42-year-old said, adding he had to sell his pigs before fleeing.

Another evacuee, Nyoman Suwarta, tearfully recounted how he was separated from his two pet zebra doves amid the frantic rush to flee the volcano.

"When I was evacuating that night, I forgot to bring them with me," said 52-year-old Suwarta, who was able to retrieve his birds nearly a week later. "I feel very sorry for my birds because they have not been eating for six days."

Faced with uncertainty about when - or if - the mountain will erupt, animal welfare groups are appealing for feed, cages, water tanks and other supplies.

Verandhini said space to house the animals was becoming one of the most pressing issues. "At the moment we have enough (room) but if a lot of people contact us, we should need more space for cows and dogs. We are still preparing for that," she said.

Indonesia sits on the Pacific "Ring of Fire" where tectonic plates collide, causing frequent seismic and volcanic activity.

In 2010, Mount Merapi on the island of Java erupted after rumbling since 2006, while Mount Sinabung on Sumatra island - which is currently also on the highest alert level - has been active since 2013.