Improved weather conditions allowed rescuers to resume evacuation efforts on Monday and search for possible victims after the tallest volcano on Indonesia’s most populous island erupted, triggered by monsoon rains.
Mount Semeru in the Lumajang district of East Java province spewed thick columns of ash more than 1,500 meters into the air on Sunday. Villages and nearby towns were covered in falling ash that blocked the sun, but no casualties were reported.
Hundreds of rescuers were deployed to the hardest-hit villages of Sumberwuluh and Supiturang on Monday, where tons of volcanic debris buried houses and mosques to the roofs.
Heavy rains had eroded the lava dome at the top of the 3,676 meters (12,060 ft) volcano and eventually collapsed, sending an avalanche of scorching gas and lava down the slopes to a nearby river. Scorching gas streamed down the sides of the mountain, 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 exploded with a fury that killed 51 people in villages buried in layers of mud. Several hundred others suffered severe burns and the eruption forced the evacuation of more than 10,000 people. The government has removed about 2,970 homes from the danger zone, including the village of Sumberwuluh.
Lumajang district chief Thoriqul Haq said villagers still haunted by last year’s eruption fled on their own when they heard rumblings from the mountain early Sunday so “casualties could be avoided”.
“They have learned an important lesson about how to avoid the danger of an eruption,” he said as he inspected a damaged bridge in the hamlet of Kajar Kuning.
He said nearly 2,000 people escaped to emergency shelters at various schools, but many were returned to their homes on Monday to tend their livestock and protect their property.
Increased volcanic activity on Sunday afternoon prompted authorities to widen the danger zone to 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the crater, and scientists raised the volcano’s alert level to the highest level, said Hendra Gunawan, chief of 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. Yet, as is the case with many of Indonesia’s 129 active volcanoes, tens of thousands of people still live on its fertile slopes.
Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 270 million people, lies along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a horseshoe-shaped series of fault lines, and is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity.
Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.