Indonesia raises volcano warning to highest after Semeru erupts; thousands evacuated

Mount Semeru spews smoke and ash in Lumajang, on Dec 4, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - A volcano erupted in Indonesia on Sunday spewing a cloud of ash 15km into the sky and forcing the evacuation of nearly 2,000 people, authorities said, as they issued their highest warning for the area in the east of Java island.

The Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Center (PVMBG) has “increased the status of Mount Semeru from... level three to level four. It means the danger has threatened the people’s settlement and the volcano’s activity has escalated”, spokesperson Hendra Gunawan told broadcaster Kompas TV.

There were no immediate reports of any casualties from the eruption of the Semeru volcano and Indonesia’s transport ministry said that there was no impact on air travel but notices had been sent to two regional airports for vigilance.

“Most roads have been closed since this morning and now it is raining volcanic ash and it has covered the view of the mountain,” community volunteer Bayu Deny Alfianto told Reuters by telephone from near the volcano.

With the raised alert level, authorities warned residents not to conduct any activities within 8km of Semeru’s eruption centre, adding hot ash clouds had reached as far as 19km from the centre of eruption.

Indonesia’s disaster mitigation agency BNPB said 1,979 people had been moved to 11 shelters and authorities had distributed masks to residents.

The volcano began erupting at 2.46am, BNPB said. Videos posted on social media showed grey ash clouds in nearby areas.

The plume from the volcano reached a height of 15km, said Japan’s Meteorology Agency, which was monitoring for the possibility of a tsunami there.

“Japan’s weather agency warned that a tsunami could arrive at the islands of Miyako and Yaeyama in the southern prefecture of Okinawa,” Kyodo news agency reported.

BNPB did not immediately respond to Japan’s warning of tsunami risk.

No casualties or injuries were immediately reported after the eruption but Mr Gunawan warned nearby residents not to travel within 8km of the crater after the threat level was raised to four.

Mount Semeru last erupted exactly one year ago, killing at least 51 people. The disaster left entire streets filled with mud and ash, swallowing homes and vehicles, with nearly 10,000 people seeking refuge.

Sunday’s eruption at Mount Semeru on the eastern part of Java island, some 640km east of the capital Jakarta, follows a series of earthquakes on the west of the island, including one last month that killed more than 300 people.

Around the same time last year, the eruption of Semeru, Java’s tallest mountain, killed more than 50 people and left several missing, while thousands were displaced.

Some residents nearby have evacuated independently to safer buildings like mosques and schools, according to a statement from the regional government of Lumajang, where Semeru is located.

“Most of the road accesses have been closed since this morning. Now its raining volcanic ash and it has covered the view of the mountain,” Bayu Deny Alfianto, a local volunteer told Reuters by phone.

Small eruptions are continuing and it is raining in the area, he said.

PVMBG’s Gunawan said the agency saw the potential for a bigger supply of magma this year compared to previous eruptions in 2021 and 2020.

“Therefore Semeru’s hot clouds could reach further (this year) and at that distance there are many residences,” he said.

With 142 volcanoes, Indonesia has the largest population globally living in close range to a volcano, including 8.6 million people within 10km.

The deadly late November quake that hit West Java’s Cianjur was a shallow temblor of 5.6 magnitude. A much deeper quake on Saturday in Gurat of 6.1 magnitude sent people running from buildings but did not cause major damage. AFP, REUTERS

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