SUMBERWULUH, Indonesia (AP) — Improving weather conditions on Monday allowed rescuers to resume evacuation efforts and the search for possible victims after the eruption of the tallest volcano on Indonesia’s most densely populated island was triggered by rains monsoons.
Mount Semeru in Lumajang district of East Java province spewed thick columns of ash more than 1,500 meters (nearly 5,000 feet) into the sky. Nearby villages and towns were covered in ash which blotted out the sun, but no casualties were reported.
Hundreds of rescue workers were deployed on Monday in the hardest-hit villages of Sumberwuluh and Supiturang, where houses and mosques were buried to their roofs by tons of volcanic debris.
Heavy rains had eroded and eventually collapsed the lava dome atop the 3,676-metre (12,060 ft) volcano, sending boiling gas and lava avalanche down its slopes towards a nearby river. The incandescent gas plummeted down the mountainsides, suffocating entire villages and destroying a bridge that had just been rebuilt after a powerful eruption last year.
Semeru’s last major eruption was in December 2021, when it erupted with a fury that claimed the lives of 51 people in villages buried by layers of mud. Several hundred others suffered severe burns, and the eruption forced the evacuation of more than 10,000 people. The government has moved about 2,970 houses out of the danger zone, including from Sumberwuluh village.
Lumajang district chief Thoriqul Haq said the villagers who are still haunted by last year’s eruption fled on their own when they heard the mountain begin to rumble early Sunday, so they “will could avoid casualties”.
“They learned an important lesson about how to avoid the danger of eruption,” he said while inspecting a damaged bridge in Kajar Kuning village.
He said nearly 2,000 people fled to emergency shelters in several schools, but many were returned to their homes on Monday to tend to livestock and protect their property.
Increased volcanic activity Sunday afternoon prompted authorities to widen the danger zone to 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the crater, and scientists have raised the volcano’s alert level to high, said Hendra Gunawan, who heads the Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation Center.
People were advised to stay away from the southeastern sector along the Besuk Kobokan River, which is in the path of the lava flow.
Semeru, also known as Mahameru, has erupted numerous times over the past 200 years. However, as is the case with many of Indonesia’s 129 active volcanoes, tens of thousands of people continue to live on its fertile slopes.
Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 270 million people, lies along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a series of horseshoe-shaped fault lines, and is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity.
Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini of Jakarta, Indonesia contributed to this report.