Chilean Volcano Erupts, Forces Evacuations

The Chaiten volcano in the remote Patagonia region of southern Chile has been dormant for 2,000 years. But for more than a week, lava, ash and huge plumes of smoke have spewed from the volcano. Thousands of people in surrounding towns are being forced to leave their homes and livestock behind.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

In Chile's remote Patagonia region, huge plumes of smoke and ash continue to spew from a volcano. Chaiten was dormant for 2,000 years until nine days ago. Since then as much as 15 inches of ash has covered some areas and the cloud of debris has drifted as far as Argentina and Uruguay.

NPR's Julie McCarthy is in Chile's capital, Santiago. And, Julie, I understand you've been trying to get to the volcano but it's not so easy.

JULIE MCCARTHY: No, it's not so easy. We're in a very isolated spot of Chile. It's really where Patagonia begins. You know, the pristine waters and the beautiful forests. And sidebar here: the whole idea that much of that or even a segment of that could be, you know, ruined is really got people worried here.

Anyway, we are in a very remote part. We're in the northern regions of Patagonia. There's a longstanding debate about the infrastructure here. It's full of fjords and inlets, very few roads, few ferries. And to give you an idea, we're only 170 kilometers from the volcano, but a 12-hour ferry ride away.

SEABROOK: Julie, from what you are hearing, how are conditions at the volcano?

MCCARTHY: Well, right here where I am, it's cloudy. Yesterday I actually saw the huge plume that's rising into the air. The national emergency office of the interior minister said yesterday that plume was as high as 13 kilometers, so it's huge. It was up to 30, 3-0, kilometers last Tuesday when its huge explosion merged the two craters of this volcano and created one huge mass, 800-meter diameter crater.

SEABROOK: Now, I understand that the volcano is spewing ash and smoke. Do you have any sense, Julie, of how long that could last?

MCCARTHY: That is the $64 million question. It is spewing ash now, it's spewing gases, it's spewing pumice and rocks and elements. There are contaminated lakes in areas of the region. They turn into this milky white. And the ash that is falling from, as you pointed out, the volcano area, all the way over to Argentina, is a combination of sulfur, which is what people actually smell, carbon dioxide, water vapor, chlorine, fluoride, magnesium, silicone.

And I was told today that so far two cubic kilometers worth of material has spewed across the lands since this thing started to erupt. So, quite a significant amount of material.

SEABROOK: And people within 30 miles of the volcano has been evacuated. I read that the government is worried about livestock and pets left behind?

MCCARTHY: Yes, they are, and today there was a big meeting about what to do about that. There have been a significant number of livestock, we are told, that actually were already taken into cattle drives south to get out of there by their owners when the evacuation notices first came up. But, yes, there is great concern. This is a farming area, people have something in the order of a thousand pets there.

In fact, they are the most easy ones to get out at this moment because this is so isolated. It really sits on the ocean. So the only way to get them out of there is boats. It's very difficult to do with cattle, so they're trying to organize actual cattle drives to the south to get the major livestock out of there, which is eating some of the grass and getting quite sick from it.

SEABROOK: NPR's Julie McCarthy speaking to us from Santiago, Chile. Thanks, Julie.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

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